How to Remember a Plague

Maybe you’re someone who keeps a diary, a shoebox of old postcards, or a closet of family photo albums. Or maybe you never bothered much with that kind of memorabilia. Who’s going to sort through it? When?

The unsentimental are right about one thing: In normal times, future historians probably really wouldn’t care about what you had for breakfast, or saw on the way to work, on any particular day. But that changed in 2020, and so did the instinct to document. In a pandemic that touched virtually every person and aspect of life on Earth, the ordinary was imbued with world-historical significance, inspiring an outburst of archival projects to capture how regular people lived through an unprecedented year.

Universities, libraries, and local historians on at least four continents are leading many such memory-preservation efforts. Some are managed by revered institutions, while others are scrappier, intimate. In the former camp is the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which has crowdsourced more than 1,700 photographs of American Covid experiences from Flickr users since September. The crosscut of local detail and personal fragments show the nation’s battle against the virus, and frequently itself. Here is a church filled with cardboard headshots of parishioners who would normally fill the pews. There are the snapshots of storefront signs insisting that masks are required, and of protesters who insist that they aren’t. “Please be patient, this is our first pandemic,” reads a sign in front of a socially distanced farmer’s market captured in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“Before this, I don’t think a lot of people would expect that a national institution would be interested in aspects of mundanity,” said Adam Silvia, a Library photography curator who is managing the project, which is set to continue for years after the pandemic ends. “One of the benefits of this terrible crisis is that people are seeing how their everyday lives fit into a national story.”

In truth, the Library has always done this, Silvia said. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Farm Security Administration funded a photographic archive that, employing now-iconic photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, deeply influenced how lawmakers and the public understood the hardships of rural poverty. And its collections are full of images and documents that reveal how everyday Americans lived through countless world-changing events, including the 1918 influenza pandemic, the most recent public health crisis that is comparable in scale. Recent acquisitions include new works by Camilo J. Vergara, a photographer known for documenting urban change, depicting the outer boroughs of New York City transformed by face masks and tented test sites billowing in the wind. 

But unlike the Spanish flu, Covid-19 struck humanity in an era of hyper self-awareness. Swaddled with smartphones, 5G, and user-generated digital media, millions of people were equipped to understand how huge of a deal this was, and had the tools to document it. For that reason, the coronavirus crisis will likely create a different kind of impression in the historical record than its predecessors, said James Connolly, a professor of history at Ball State University and director of its Center for Middletown Studies, which produces research about economic and community life in small cities.

“One of the most striking things about the 1918 flu pandemic is that no one really talked about it afterwards,” Connolly said. “If you go back to the 1920s, it was not front and center in that period. I don’t think that will happen with Covid — it’s being documented in so many ways, particularly by middle-class, educated people who have resources to record their experiences. I think that the memories will be intense.”

A project housed by the Center suggests so. “Everyday Life in Middletown” solicits detailed diary entries from residents of Muncie, Indiana, where the university is located. It’s inspired by Middletown: A Study of a Midwestern City, a sociological account of mid-1920s Muncie that became a bestseller. A few days per year, anonymous participants record the events of their lives and the people, places, and feelings that factor in. Whether it’s an overlong trip to the pharmacy, the choice of chicken for dinner, or the knot of pride and terror produced by a child’s tiny act of independence, the object is to capture the kinds of details and routines often lost to memory, in contrast with more manifestly significant events that people tend to remember.

But the pandemic has blurred that distinction as it disrupts society’s patterns, Connolly said. Recent diary entries recount participants weighing infection risks as they shop for groceries, search for work, care for elderly parents and otherwise try to go about their lives. With so many once-rote activities now premeditated or simply unavailable, they are constantly noticing the fact that a huge thing is happening, he said — it’s just that, unlike a wedding, election, or regular huge thing, it keeps popping up in every step of their lives.

The pandemic also physically marking the landscape, in ways that may be permanent. In the U.K., a Twitter account called the Viral Archive has been tagged in more than 2,000 individual posts of photographs of the Covid-19 landscape around the world. Similar to the Library of Congress initiative, the project has collected a massive range of familiar pandemic sights, though this one — led by a group of archaeologists — has a special focus on “signs, marks and graffiti” left on built and natural environments. It’s important because the social-distancing stickers, hand sanitizer pumps, and wishing walls will disappear one day, leaving behind only photographs for future study, said Rosie Everett, a Ph.D student in archeology at the University of Warwick who helps lead the archive effort.

Not all pandemic artifacts are so ephemeral, though. Today’s heaps of discarded masks, gloves and other non-biodegradable Covid waste may be a topic of study for tomorrow’s dirt-diggers. Among her colleagues, “it’s often discussed that it will form a horizon of plastic pollution as other events like volcanic explosions did,” Everett said. “People will start to study the physical scarring on landscapes that will happen because of them.”

Archival projects are also happening at the household level. DNA-matching and genealogy services boomed this year, with more individuals hunting down birth parents and trying to connect more branches on their family tree. Ancestry reported a 37% increase in subscribers from March to July 2020, compared to the same period in 2019, according to the Washington Post., a send-away mass photo scanning service, is busier than ever, according to chief executive Mitch Goldstone, as people stuck at home dust off old snapshots to preserve them for posterity. For the family documentarian, these projects served both as comforting trips down memory lane and replacements for the real-life events that the pandemic put on hold.

“People aren’t out doing all the normal things that warrant taking pictures of,” he said. “That’s why the past becomes so important, because you can go and revisit all the old adventures.”

But while 2020’s many canceled vacations, parties and family gatherings did leave us with space to fill in our smartphone camera rolls, it also prompted a different way of looking at the world. In Muncie, with so many plans upended, diarists seem to be paying more attention to the present and immediate future, and less to what lies further in unknowable distance.

“A lot of the stuff we’ve normally seen people thinking about — I’m going to lose 20 pounds or exercise more, or whatever — those things receded in salience,” Connell said. “Instead we heard more about the weather. We heard about different kinds of creative activities and new routines people are developing. They couldn’t spend as much time projecting into the future, so people are focusing more on the day-to-day.”

That’s also clear from photos in other archive projects. It requires a level of centered awareness to stop and take a photo of a playground swaddled in caution tape, or a newspaper box blaring another dystopian headline, said Helena Zinkham, chief of the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress. There may be solace in the legibility of the past, but the call to speak to the future is equally hard to ignore — and that seems to be prompting some people to slow down and concentrate on what’s happening now. “People seem to be looking carefully and noticing things, without the rush of life going on around them,” Zinkham said. “They are reflecting forward to what it felt like to be in this time” — even as they’re feeling it.

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