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Harvard Archivists Scramble to Document Daily Life Amid Pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, the Harvard Archives are aiming to document it.
As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, the Harvard Archives are aiming to document it. By Claire J. Hoffman
By Simon J. Levien and Ema R. Schumer, Crimson Staff Writers

Staff at the Harvard University Archives are soliciting reflections from Harvard affiliates to document how College traditions, academic coursework, and daily life have changed as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“People are getting wasted at final clubs, Allston bars, Weeks Bridge on the Charles River,” one reflection reads. “People are sobbing at final clubs, rooftop bars, Weeks Bridge on the Charles River. No one seems to know what to do.”

When Harvard affiliates departed from campus over a month ago, the University Archives, which is charged with preserving Harvard history, faced a challenge. How could archivists document life at Harvard — including courses, activism, and student life — when those activities were no longer taking place openly at Harvard Yard or in Sanders Theatre, but online?

With that challenge came an opportunity, according to University archivist Virginia A. Hunt. Hunt said she and other archivists felt it was urgent to create a project on the day-to-day lives of Harvard affiliates experiencing the global pandemic. Termed the COVID-19 Community Archiving Project, the initiative is requesting that Harvard faculty, staff, and students submit materials to record their lives in quarantine.

Requested items range from written reflections, to schedules of a day in quarantine, to videos of at-home exercise. Hunt said the archivists believe it is important to document aspects of daily life — even those that happen online.

“A lot of that type of thing is ephemeral and happens in social media. It happens in Zoom interactions. It happens on the web,” Hunt said.

Hunt said students have already submitted photos of their last moments on campus, descriptions of virtual Housing Day, and a poster promoting a virtual Earth Day rally.

Students in some classes are also working to record daily life, shifting their coursework from studying history to documenting it in real time.

History lecturer Caitlin D. G. Hopkins has asked students in her class, HIST 12C: “Out of the Vault: Material Culture and Harvard's Collections,” to contribute to the University Archive project.

She said cataloguing student perspectives in the archives would be valuable to future historians.

“Sometimes there’s this feeling that what we do day-to-day doesn’t have historical value,” Hopkins said. “Everyday experiences are really what historians are looking for.”

History instructor Zachary B. Nowak has also encouraged students to share their quarantine experiences. He created a student journaling project, entitled “A Coronavirus Diary,” to collect biweekly reflections from students. Nowak said more than 200 students had indicated interest as of April 23. He added that he plans to print student responses on archival cotton paper and donate them to the University Archives.

Students in HISTSCI 191CU: “Harvard's Changing Landscapes: A Contemporary History Project” were already studying changes at Harvard when the pandemic hit. The course, which was centered on Harvard’s expansion into Allston, quickly shifted its focus to documenting the public health crisis, according to instructor and History of Science lecturer David S. Unger.

Unger said his students have conducted interviews with Harvard affiliates, recording experiences and anecdotes during the outbreak. In two weeks, the class plans to launch a website, called “Harvard from Home,” to retell those stories and allow users to contribute their own.

Unger said he hopes this project will preserve “those ephemeral elements of the current situation that seem so clear right now, but are going to fade from memory.”

One memorable moment his students captured, Unger said, involved a graduate student who brought her lab animals home and was “trying to figure out how to make sea water in her kitchen to keep them alive.”

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

—Staff writer Ema R. Schumer can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.

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