In the age of social media, the way we’ve stored information has changed beyond recognition. Many now share details of their lives every day, on platforms that store them forever.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this factor, the rise of the internet, makes less vital the work of archivists. But in Trinity, a research project happening right now shows the flaw in this logic. Because while social media can reveal snippets of our experiences, it rarely comes with enough context to capture more than a fleeting moment.
In a pandemic, working out how to story comprehensive records is a task of enormous importance. Casting a critical eye on the present – on our lives, our contributions, the information we consume – presents a challenge beyond analysing the past.
Key to the whole exercise is the quality of perspective. To bridge the gaps between perception and reality, statistics and human beings, national interest and individual circumstance, we need to take a step back.
But paradoxically, taking a step back can also mean thinking a few steps ahead. This is where Trinity’s archivists come in.
You want to hear about the hope, the kindness, as well as the trauma and the sadness, to try to get that holistic, total sense of the experience
Mid-virus, in anticipation of the research of the future, College’s library staff have started a new project – Living in Lockdown – which aims to acquire and interrogate individual and collective responses to the pandemic. Spearheaded by Dr Jane Maxwell, an assistant librarian in Trinity, it’s a cumulative effort of data and records management, data preservation and outreach and advocacy expertise.
“We truly wanted to capture the Trinity experience of the lockdown”, says Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, the director of Trinity’s Long Room Hub and Erasmus Smith’s professor of modern history in the College. “It is a very inclusive and extensive initiative, and the library is very keen to take those stories. It might be a short video, it might be something in writing, it might be a diary, it might be a piece of artwork. It doesn’t matter the format of it, they just want to hear people’s stories of this extraordinary moment.”
Of course, extraordinary comes in many forms, and capturing the many nuances – positive and negative – of the pandemic is central to the project. Ohlmeyer says: “You want it to be [representative]. You want to hear the good and the bad. You want to hear about the hope, the kindness, as well as the trauma and the sadness, to try to get that holistic, total sense of the experience.”
Individual stories, Maxwell tells me, are crucial to the project. “Personal material can get so easily lost, but it is exactly the kind of thing that people come in looking to us to base their study on. Knowing that from before prompted us to expect that in the future – and that’s why we started the project.”
She says one of the things that makes the project unique is its ethos of rapid-response reflection. “Libraries like ours tend not to respond swiftly to this because we have processes, protocols and we have an evaluation process … we usually don’t have any role in encouraging individuals to make their materials – to make records, or then to present them.”
The challenge with an initiative such as this, where the people contributing to the archive are keenly aware that their contributions will be preserved for posterity, is truth. But this, in itself, is interesting – Maxwell explains that “the very motivation that made you contribute to the project is part of our research interest”.
But it’s not for the archivists to engage in this issue, Maxwell says. “There is absolutely no way, nor should we try, to second-guess how this collection will be used. We have to travel with the usual confidence that a good, solid collection of materials will find its student and its researcher and we have to leave it to them to decide what to do with it.”
What matters for the archivists right now is collecting material and capturing the immediacy of the pandemic. “Things that we think are so new and indelibly imprinted on our experience will be forgotten, completely forgotten, so that’s one of the reasons that we have to both act fast but take a long view. Because we want people to tell us how things are now, but we have no idea how things are going to be this time next year, none at all.”
Practically speaking, retrieving, cataloguing and preserving digital data presents an enormous challenge. Capturing individual voices and experiences for posterity in the form of an accessible body of material requires not only dedication but rigorous curation and archiving. Trinity isn’t the only university embarking on it.
Ohlmeyer explains that she was initially taken by this project on the basis of the “very warm research collaboration” that Trinity has with Columbia University, New York, which prompted a discussion about their joint response to the crisis. In Columbia, a similar project is ongoing, Jocelyn Wilk, an archivist at Columbia University, tells me.
Wilk says repositories across the US responded to the pandemic through community response and archival initiatives – something that prompted her to create an anonymous questionnaire of mostly open-ended questions to disseminate to the wider Columbia community. “The whole point”, she says, “was that we wanted to supplement the official record with personal narrative, and I think we’ve accomplished that”.
“What we were hoping to do was to have people respond as honestly and as thoughtfully as possible about their personal experiences in leaving campus, in working or studying remotely, or teaching remotely. And what their experiences in self-isolating, quarantine were like for them – if they had to leave the city, if they were living with many other people, if they were all by themselves, and how they were dealing with that.”
Personal material can get so easily lost, but it is exactly the kind of thing that people come in looking to us to base their study on
Capturing a variety of viewpoints over a long period of time, Wilk explains, will create “a richer resource for somebody who wants to know what our community was going through and what we were experiencing down the line”.
Denise Milstein is the director of Columbia’s master’s in sociology, as well as the co-director of its “COVID-19 Oral History, Narrative and Memory Archive”. The project, Milstein says, aims to capture the views and experiences of three groups: frontline workers, “regular” New Yorkers, and policymakers shaping the response to the pandemic. It’s taking this approach “to make sure that we have a reasonably diverse sample that is as much as possible representative of New York City”, she says.
The study’s survey covers issues ranging from civic engagement to the impact of the virus on behaviours that we might normally take for granted. The second stage will document the experience of 500 people, chronicling their experience of lockdown. At the third stage of this project, a team of 30 oral history researchers will conduct interviews with 200 people. The magnitude of this project, Milstein explains, means that the team will likely finish data-gathering in autumn 2021.
She tells me the process of examining the changes wrought by the pandemic revealed “the extent to which we would see people improvising in all kinds of different ways that often involved changing rules, breaking rules, developing organisations autonomously, building up mutual aid networks, for example, to make up for the failings of the system”.
The whole point was that we wanted to supplement the official record with personal narrative, and I think we’ve accomplished that
It’s not only the coronavirus, though, that makes the present moment pivotal – around the world, but particularly in the US. Marchers have flooded to the streets in their thousands in recent weeks, in protest at a system many believe doesn’t represent their interests. For archivists, it’s essential to capture the capacity for workers and activists – not just politicians – to make change.
“We didn’t realise the extent to which the pandemic would reveal the fault-lines of our society”, Milstein says.
She namechecks the “structural problems that already existed: inequality, injustice, marginalisation of certain populations”, and tells me that “those have become incredibly salient through the pandemic, and so we’ve shifted our thinking a little bit – from thinking of the pandemic as an exceptional thing that is happening to our society, to thinking of the pandemic as a window onto what was already a problem in our society”.
As we rush to return to “normal”, it would be a mistake to ignore the convergence of this racial and social movement and a deadly pandemic. And our lens for doing it, which has in the past omitted from history the voices of the marginalised, is changing. In Trinity and Columbia, researchers are gathering information in a way that seeks exhibit, rather than comment on, a defining moment in history.