Shortly after COVID-19 started to spread, shuttering public spaces and forcing people to keep their distance, a group of archivists and public historians saw an opportunity: Document everyday life during the pandemic.
A Journal of the Plague Year: Covid-19 Digital Archive, organized by the Arizona Historical Society and School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, asked people around the world to capture digital fragments of humanity during the global pandemic. They wanted to create a time capsule by collecting firsthand accounts of life, with the help of ubiquitous smartphones. The archive is designed to give future historians a snapshot of this moment in history, primarily through narrative and ephemera.
In 15,000 entries — from news clips and oral histories to memes — the texture of two years of crisis emerges: tweets about lockdown in prison from a contraband cellphone, the smoky ochre of a September Western sunset, the deadpan account of one quarantine-er’s first venture outdoors in months.
“In public history, collaboration is our strength.”
The archive reflects the social media age, when digital refuges, however imperfect, allowed communities to form, safe from the dangers of in-person gatherings. The historians note the archive’s limitations, acknowledging the impossibility of making an omniscient collection of human experiences. But through collective action, the images, journal entries and audio recordings might help fill in some gaps. “In public history, collaboration is our strength,” historians Jordan Meyerl and Katy Kole de Peralta wrote in an essay on the archive. “By aggregating distinct perspectives in a larger project, we can build something bigger than ourselves.”
Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email him a [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.