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Documenting history as it happens: Brown archivists collect COVID-19 stories, experiences from community

Pembroke Center, U. Library projects compile oral histories, memes, experiences of living during COVID-19 pandemic from Brown, Rhode Island communities

As members of the University community navigate the challenges of life away from campus, University archivists are making headway on projects that seek to document those experiences. Working remotely from their homes in Providence, teams from the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women and the University Library’s digital collections are actively compiling records of community members’ stories — and memes — as the pandemic unfolds for researchers to access in the future. 

Other institutions have archived information in real-time during major occurrences previously; events like the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Women’s Marches in 2017 and 2018, said Mary Murphy, Nancy L. Buc ’65 Pembroke Center Archivist. 

But for University archivists, this process is a new experience.

“This is the first time in my career as an archivist where I am collecting due to an event, a tragic event, in real-time — where we put down our other work and turned our attention squarely to harvesting evidence of what was happening right in front of us,” Murphy said. 

Oral histories from women, transgender and non-binary identifying community members

Headed by Murphy and Assistant Archivist Amanda Knox, the Pembroke Center’s project focuses on collecting the oral histories of women, transgender and non-binary identifying University community members. Murphy and Knox are in the process of conducting interviews over Zoom, and are utilizing the existing infrastructure for streaming them online that the Center has previously used for its Oral History Project, founded in 1982. 

The Center is asking participants to talk through their experiences during hour-long interviews. Interviewees so far have included Shuyan Wang ’20, an international student from Nanjing, China, and Katherine Goldman, center manager for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Knox said that interview questions range from, “How are you safely getting your groceries?” to, “In 10 years, when (somebody listens) to this interview, what would you want them to know?”

Particular statements, such as, “think about your memory as a polaroid photograph and tell me what’s in the picture,” help prompt the interviewee to share “aesthetic” or “colored” memories, Murphy said. “That is where oral histories are really strong. … They go beyond the news, they go beyond the text and they can provide depth of emotion and a color around the memory that’s being shared.”

The website for the Center’s Oral History Project receives around 850 to 1,200 visitors each month from across the globe, Murphy said.

Recently, the Pembroke Center’s project was featured in the Smithsonian Magazine as part of a larger nationwide movement of cultural institutions calling for members of their communities to share and record their stories. Universities like Columbia are seeking interviews with essential workers in New York while museums like the Smithsonian are collecting objects, photographs and documents related to the pandemic, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

The Pembroke Center archivists are working in partnership with the John Hay Library to assist with digital collecting, particularly on the intersection between COVID-19 and issues like domestic violence, access to reproductive health care and health care for gender minority community members, Murphy said. The Center “is here to step up and ensure that everybody’s story is getting captured.”

Both Murphy and Andrew Majcher, head of digital services and records management at the University Library, are seeking members of the Brown community interested in sharing their COVID-19 experiences or relevant online sources. 

In the coming weeks, the Pembroke Center oral histories will be published on their website and social media, Murphy said. Meanwhile, the library’s collections will become part of the Rockefeller Library’s Josiah record and Special Collections, Majcher said. The public can also currently access archived links on the University’s Archive-It website.

Digitally archiving content: from news updates to memes

Majcher leads another team on campus working on digitally archiving COVID-19 experiences. Past projects had been created to commemorate historic events like the 1968 Black student walkout on campus. But Majcher said that the creation of a new collection for an ongoing event is unprecedented for the library. 

Majcher’s team focuses on online content using “web-crawling” to find and select information from websites related to the pandemic. The team tracks conventional updates from President Christina Paxson P’19, Provost Richard Locke P'18, other University administrators, the Rhode Island Department of Health and news sources including The Herald. But his team recently added a new source to their list of archived material: a student-run Facebook group, now titled “The Brown Dank Stash of Memes for S/NC Teens,” dedicated to University-related memes.

The Facebook group currently has over 20,000 members, and nearly 500 posts were published in the last month. Per their request, Majcher has been archiving the group’s content for around a year and a half. Now, content posted in the group serves as one source of students’ reactions to the pandemic, he said. 

Part of his work as an archivist involves forecasting how researchers, students and staff will use the library’s collections decades into the future. “There’s definitely going to be people looking at how did Brown handle the 1918 (influenza flu pandemic), and how did it handle the COVID-19 crisis,” Majcher said. 

Along with comparative work between pandemics, Majcher predicts that there will be interest in how learning at Brown will change — with even on-campus classes potentially incorporating more remote or digital elements in future semesters. “It’s going to put another spin on the Open Curriculum,” he said. 


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