New Archives Project Creating Historic Record of Pandemic Emphasizes Students, Communities of Color
University Libraries has started an archival project, “Shell-tering in Place: Terp Stories of COVID-19,” to collect and preserve historical documents and accounts of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the coronavirus pandemic gaining deadly momentum this spring and the University of Maryland holding classes online for safety, University Archivist Lae’l Hughes-Watkins dug into UMD’s past to discover how the campus of a century ago responded to the Spanish flu pandemic—and came up essentially empty.
“From the archival lanes, we could find very little about how this played out on campus—how it impacted students, how it hit the faculty and staff, what the administration’s decision-making process included,” she said of the search, which she conducted along with two students and Athletics Archivist Laurainne Ojo-Ohikuare.
That void about a monumental period in 20th-century history gave rise to “Shell-tering in Place: Terp Stories of COVID-19,” a project to collect a comprehensive range of digital materials to tell a UMD-centric story of this pandemic:
A submission could be as simple as a cell-phone photo of a resident assistant’s flier about an emergency meeting to discuss closures on campus after this year’s spring break, she said. Although the accounts and the voices of administration, faculty and staff will be welcome—and critical parts of the project—University Archives is aiming for far more than just official documents and accounts, she said.
“Students are the lifeblood of our community,” she said. “It’s not just here, but university archives and institutional records in general focus on administrative records, presidents, deans and faculty papers. So we want to make sure we document experience of students through the lens of students rather than the administration.”
Hughes-Watkins said the collection should represent the campus community in all its aspects, including various communities of color: Asian or Asian American students, who may have experienced discrimination and blame for the pandemic, or African American students, who hail from a community that has been disproportionately impacted.
In addition, alumni voices will be part of "Shell-tering in Place," she said.
Depending on the pace of submissions and limited staffing resources, Hughes-Watkins said University Archives might begin digitally sharing parts of the collection that donors have OK’d for immediate distribution as early as this fall.
She urged everyone to take another look at what now seem like detritus, but 100 years from now could shine a valuable light on another somber passage in our history.
“People don’t always realize when they have something valuable to contribute,” she said. “Sometimes in this role you meet people who hoard everything, and other times you meet people who throw it all away—and all you can say is, ‘Oh my goodness—that was important.’”
Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.
Faculty, staff and students receive the daily Maryland Today e-newsletter. To be added to the subscription list, sign up here:Subscribe