While we continue to hear words such as unprecedented and novel, we simultaneously search for previous events to compare this coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. We seek clarity, guidance, and personal reflections of how to handle such a challenge. Preservation becomes a key component to learning from the past and preparing for the future.

Illinois State University archivists at the Jo Ann Rayfield Archives in Milner Library are in the process of gathering those stories as COVID-19 continues to change normalcy.

There wasn’t much of a blueprint as Archivist April Anderson-Zorn said the only records from the 1918 influenza are articles found in The Vidette. There wasn’t even much on the HIV/AIDS outbreak, which caused a similar feeling of uncertainty and uneasiness. Anderson-Zorn and others in the office want to preserve the history of this time period for both future and current Redbirds to learn from. She hopes the stories, recordings, and materials for the digital collection take a cue from the virus and are never ending.

“There’s no end date of collecting it all,” Anderson-Zorn said. “We’ll keep collecting long past the vaccine. It’s probably going to be an indefinite thing, in all honesty.”

The collection was launched at the end of spring semester as archivists were busy in March and April making sure students, faculty, and staff all had what they needed to finish out the school year in the time of transition.

Since then, here is what University Archives has gathered during this ever-fluid situation:

  • Submissions from colleges and departments who have event recordings
  • A graduating senior’s virtual graduation
  • Faculty-donated teaching materials
  • Online projects from students
  • Photos of an empty Quad in the springtime
  • Photos from alums working at testing sites and at health care centers.

Anderson-Zorn is especially encouraging more student testimonies. She believes these submissions, which can be filled out on a desktop or tablet, will play a vital role in preserving Illinois State’s pandemic story.

“This is a transformative time,” Anderson-Zorn said. “They’re taking these online classes, and what’s that like? Especially for students who are so used to being social butterflies.”

University Archives has, like so many others, had to shift its operations to meet health standards. Access is still available by appointment, and staff is continuing to conduct research discussions. These adjustments will all be a part of the story too. Decisions made right now will influence how people view and learn from the pandemic when they look back years down the road.

“In this world right now, if you don’t adapt to doing things a different way, it’s going to be a lot harder for you,” Anderson-Zorn said. “You have to be able to survive the moment.”

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