Bentley’s COVID-19 collection offers varied look at pandemic
By Ann Zaniewski
Student films. Journal entries. Tributes to hospital workers.
The items in the Bentley Historical Library’s COVID-19 collection offer a poignant glimpse of the pandemic’s impact on University of Michigan students, faculty and staff.
Launched in April 2020, the collection includes 265 digital items from more than 150 donors. Archivists are still collecting submissions, with an eye now on how the pandemic continues to touch people’s lives more than a year after it started.
“Moments of profound change and challenge are important,” said Aprille Cooke McKay, lead archivist for university archives at the Bentley. “Just experiencing the upheaval made it obvious to us that this was a time that people were going to want to know about in the future.”
The project marked the first time that the Bentley used an online Google form to accept submissions digitally through crowdsourcing. Materials came in from all across campus.
Many of the items reflect how faculty members and students had to quickly pivot after campus largely shut down in mid-March last year. With her students scattered all across the county, Terri Sarris, senior lecturer in the Department of Film, TV and Media, asked them to shift gears and make their final video projects about their experiences during the pandemic.
Some students focused on feeling restless and what it was like to be back home with their families. They recorded footage of tributes to essential workers and people talking about their pandemic experiences. One student took video of the starkly empty streets of New York City.
“They really are a time capsule of what people were going through at that time,” Sarris said.
Outreach was an important part of building the collection. Before the winter 2020 semester ended, McKay contacted associate deans at several schools and asked them to alert faculty members to the project.
Archivists also reached out to groups that are historically under-documented in the Bentley’s archives but were particularly affected by the pandemic, such as hospital, transportation and facilities workers.
The project used a different kind of archival process. Normally, archivists collect groups of documents from one creator, often after significant time passes, rather than cataloging individual items as an event is unfolding.
“I think one of the cool things about this project is that it sort of democratized the access and people could see their own stories represented in the archives, so they could feel like their contribution was important, their story was important,” McKay said.
Most items in the collection are from the early weeks of the pandemic. One professor donated her diary entries from that period. Someone who was studying seismic noise near Michigan Stadium submitted a graph with that data.
“As soon as lockdown started, the level of volume in town at the stadium just dropped,” said Caitlin Moriarty, project archivist at the Bentley and the coordinator of the COVID-19 collection project. “We don’t normally think about the sound around us. I do remember it was just so quiet everywhere.”
One item that stood out to archivists was a student’s light-hearted, pandemic-related superhero film in which he played a multitude of different superhero characters.
“We all thought that provided comic relief for the team while we were working on the project, even as we were feeling scared and worried in our own lives,” McKay said.
Donations slowed significantly around July of last year, as the novelty of the pandemic wore off and people started to settle into a new normal. Both McKay and Moriarty said they would love to have more recent materials in the collection, such as items related to the rollout of vaccines or how it felt to emerge from quarantine.
Six university archivists are involved in the project. As they continue to accept donations, they’re working on how to package and present the collection, which is entirely digital, in a comprehensive, accessible way.
Ultimately, the crowdsourced collection will make up just a portion of the university’s archived pandemic materials. The Bentley regularly acquires various records from schools, colleges and departments across U-M, and some of those materials also include items related to COVID-19. The Bentley expects to continue to receive pandemic-related materials through direct connections like these over the coming years.
There’s been no decision on when the COVID-19 collection project might end.
“One of our team members has joked that when we have a football game in the stadium, then we’ll close down the (Google) form,” McKay said.