University Archives creates COVID-19 documentation project

The University of Illinois quad sits empty during what would have been Mom's Weekend in early April.

Photo Courtesy of Kristine McCoskey

The University of Illinois quad sits empty during what would have been Mom’s Weekend in early April.

By Amrita Bhattacharyya, Staff Writer

As COVID-19 disrupts normalcy across the nation, the University Archives aims to document the experience of people as their lives are altered by the pandemic. 

The University Archives has created a project in which the University community can send submissions that reflect their experience with the pandemic. 

The COVID-19: Writing a New Chapter in University of Illinois History initiative asks students to submit text, audio, video, art or images through a form

“We wanted to make sure that it was pretty flexible and open to a variety of different types of submissions,” said Bethany Anderson, natural and applied sciences archivist.

Jessica Ballard, archivist for multicultural collections and services, said this project started after she noticed other universities are doing similar documentation projects with the aim of getting an inclusive record of events that have risen with COVID-19. 

The project began collecting responses at the end of March, and has over 60 submissions so far. 

Submissions include pictures of the empty campus, original pieces of music, photos of artwork and a video of someone completing a puzzle. 

The form has an option for anonymous submissions. This was inspired by student life and culture archivist Ellen Swaine, who in 2001 placed a poster in the Illini Union on which students stuck anonymous Post-it notes to share their experiences regarding 9/11.

“She had such a variety of perspectives through that,” Ballard said. 

The archives have come a long way since Maynard Brichford, first director of the University Archives, created initiatives to build up the records. 

“I’m told he would walk around campus and if there was a poster of an event that had recently passed maybe the week before, he would take it down and bring it down to the archives,” Ballard said. 

Now, in the digital age, “the archival profession has been more conscious of trying to document activities and events as they’re happening,” Anderson said. 

The archivists plan on putting the submissions in their digital library after reviewing the information. Because the project accepts a variety of submission types including video files, word documents, PDFs and image files, the archivists must make sure that responses are accessible.

“We’re always thoroughly looking through information as well because occasionally, we have gotten social security numbers,” Ballard said, referring to students accidentally submitting personal data. 

The project is taking submissions through the rest of the year. 

“It is hard … in the moment especially, when you’re a student to imagine that this information 20 to 30 years from now or even further is going to be very valuable,” Ballard said. 

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