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Archiving a pandemic: Special Collections gathers oral and written histories

April 23, 2020

As the College transitioned to remote learning last month, weekly town halls and daily updates from President Clayton Rose and deans for the College have become the norm, prompting a mix of anxiety and relief amongst readers. After just a few days of working from home, Meagan Doyle, a digital archivist in the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives, began collecting these emails. It was clear to her that this is a historic moment, and that someone needs to record the College’s actions during the pandemic.

A few weeks later, she created the Documenting Bowdoin & COVID-19 project, in which Bowdoin community members can submit written documents—prose, poetry, art, journals—and oral histories to record and preserve their thoughts on the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

“Collecting journals or really any form of reflection people create is really important so that we can try to fill in the gaps and have fewer silences in the record,” said Doyle in a video interview with the Orient. “However close in the future or distant in the future, someone will be using [these documents] to understand this particular moment.”

Bowdoin students, faculty, staff and alumni can contribute by emailing Doyle their personal accounts of the pandemic and signing a few waivers. Although Doyle is still creating an online portal for submissions, the project’s website includes various resources, including information about ways to conduct an oral history, suggested topics for interviews or written accounts and a matchmaking form to pair up individuals interested in conducting an oral history with another Bowdoin community member.

The project is similar to many other past documentation projects in Special Collections and Archives. The College has collected journals from students, faculty and alumni practically since its founding, and there have been oral histories conducted to record the stories of the first women at the College, the first African American students and alumni more generally.

In most of these projects, individuals submitted their testimonies years after the events that are discussed occurred, retrospectively commenting on their lived experiences. But the Documenting Bowdoin & COVID-19 project records history in real time.

“It’s valuable to get people’s reflections now because if people are in the moment, maybe they’ll accurately remember what happened yesterday, as opposed to talking about it 25 years from now,” said Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, Special Collections education and outreach librarian, in a video interview with the Orient. “It’s also very valuable in 25 years to have oral history projects about COVID-19 because then we’ll have sort of more context, and people will understand more how this disease and the pandemic affected their lives. So I think it’s all worth doing.”

Van Der Steenhoven is working with Doyle to integrate the project into Bowdoin classrooms. She hopes to help professors design assignments for students to do journaling or oral history work as part of their coursework.

Assistant Professor of History Salar Mohandesi already uses oral histories in his research and in some of his classes, and this semester, students in both his Transatlantic Sixties and Seventies course and his History of the Present class are conducting what he calls “personal histories,” recording their thoughts on 2020 in a written, audio or visual format.

“When you do an oral history in the present, you’re able to capture your thoughts in the here and now. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You probably don’t have a highly coherent narrative, and you’re struggling to figure out things as you go,” Mohandesi said in a video interview with the Orient.

“It’s a unique way of capturing the stress, anxieties and uncertainties that sometimes get foreclosed, neatly packaged and presented in a history class 30 years later,” he added.

Mohandesi is not requiring students to submit their work to the Special Collections and Archives project, but he hopes that they do.

“Even though a lot of students might feel like they’re just being pushed by the stream of history, they also are a part of this history, and I think their stories are just as valuable,” he said. “History should not just be the story of elites. It should also be the story of masses of people who have real concerns and desires.”

Doyle is also documenting the small mass that is the Bowdoin community through web crawls, which use screenshots from various days to capture all the updates to Bowdoin’s website, such as the additions to the COVID-19 FAQ page. Additionally, she is cataloging all COVID-related emails, which she said “seems like all emails lately.”

Beyond simply generating primary source documents for historians to use at a later date, Doyle said that recording one’s thoughts can be cathartic and therapeutic in these tumultuous times, and it is “still worth doing for your own personal archive or for generations to come after you.”

She also hopes the project creates an opportunity for the Bowdoin community to come together.

“An oral history in which you’re interviewing someone is both a way to get at connection and community by sharing stories,” she said. “Hopefully we’re leaving space for reflection but also leaving space for connection during these strange times.”


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