Skip to main content
Move the World.
pandemic time capsule

The coronavirus pandemic, which we once thought would maybe only be a blip in time, marks a significant moment in history. How will archivists, historians, and authors understand the story of what we went through — how we lived and changed? Now you can help them by submitting your story to a number of online time capsules.

Suleika Jaouad launched The Isolation Journals as a way to "spark your imagination and help us all process and stay connected during these difficult times." Each day, participants who signed up for her email, receive a journaling prompt written by prominent authors. Some write songs, draw pictures, or put pen to paper and write a story. Many share their work on social media using a shared hashtag.

On April 3, 2020 twitter user @mswannmayer5 wrote,

"I am adjusting, slowly, to this solitary new life. I walk the dog, I call B—. We talk for hours, the same as before we confessed our feelings for one another, days ago, giggling over the phone about wanting to share a kiss....it will be another two months before the shelter-in-place order is lifted and we can see one another."

Author Catharine Arnold calls this a "tiny voice. As a historical writer who wrote a book on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, she says that eyewitness accounts like these are the basis for all her books. She sifts through diaries, journals, and letters to find personal stories that tell the human journey during a significant time in history — and living during the coronavirus pandemic is a journey.

"While it's great to have the sweeping, masculine edge of history, it's also nice to have all these tiny voices. And the more voices you have, the more of an accurate picture you can actually get with civilization confronting something really scary, which is what we're doing at the moment," she says.

We haven't had an upheaval of this magnitude since 9/11. Since then, ways of documenting day-to-day life have exploded — blogging, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr. And now, with smartphones in our pockets giving us instant access to the internet anywhere, people spend half their life online, creating a digital proxy of their lives at home.

But Arnold says, because of the sheer volume of information today, "Any historian preparing to do a book about coronavirus really has their work cut out for them." How will they make sense out of the flood of information? Facebook live videos or tweets about lockdown life are here and gone — weeks, days, or hours later — buried deep in internet oblivion.

"The more voices you have, the more of an accurate picture you can actually get with civilization confronting something really scary."

Catharine Arnold

A group of historians, led by Arizona State University researchers, hope to focus the effort by collecting stories in a central location: a A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19. The online time capsule derives its namesake from Daniel Defoe's novel of the 1665 plague, likely based on his uncle's diaries. Firsthand accounts, like Defoe's uncle, the CDC's Pandemic Influenza Storybook, or the Diary of Samuel Pepys, provide a glimpse into life during a pandemic.

Some people are chronicling their personal story to help them cope with being diagnosed with COVID-19. In May, the reddit user millerjuana began journaling his family's story.

"April 25th: my mom's condition worsened. She had a high fever, dry cough, terrible aches and pains, chills, a migraine that she says she's never had anything like before, and she remains in bed the whole day. I figure I was probably already exposed so I help her and make sure she's doing okay."

Millerjuana continues to create a memoir of the experience he and his mother are having, providing a detailed account of COVID-19 onset and symptoms, as experienced by ordinary people.

The Guardian and Kaiser Health News have launched a project to crowdsource the stories of deceased healthcare professionals and frontline workers to build a virtual time capsule honoring those heroes. Journalists take inspiration from submitted stories to write profiles, which are shared on their site called Lost on the Frontlines — like the story of Karen Carmello, a nurse who died in the ICU, leaving behind her husband and autistic son.

"I got a call within two hours that she passed. I was stunned," her husband told Kaiser Health News, describing how he learned of his wife's death.

Web archives like these will help historians and scientists alike. Researchers studying coronavirus today are mining the wealth of information embedded in these "coronavirus diaries." At the UC Institute for Prediction Technology, researchers have tapped into Twitter, Google, and Baidu (China's search engine) to gain insight into outcomes, human behavior, and how the disease works.

Arnold says that these data archives have a dual capacity, "It will help historians sift through all this material and say, 'Oh yes, that was what was happening in Arizona at the time.' Or they can look at it from a cultural view. They can look at the different socioeconomic groups, gender, age," she says.

"But I think it would also be therapeutic for the people who write in, because just the very act of telling your story, being listened to, even if it's just tapping into a blog, it makes you feel less lonely, you know there are other people like you."

"I’m noticing strange acts of kindness."

Catharine Arnold

This isn't the first time that people have tried to document challenging periods of history while living them. Virtual time capsules like the September 11 Digital Archive or Hurricane Katrina Digital Memory Bank store digital clues to history.

Photogrammar, a pictorial representation of life from 1935 to 1944 during the Great Depression, and Mass Observation, which started asking ordinary people in 1937 to record their everyday experiences to get a picture of life in Britain, are invaluable records of history in the making.

As a journalist and a historian, Arnold is constantly noticing things that happen today that we will want to remember tomorrow.

"I'm noticing strange acts of kindness. The other day, standing in the queue, somebody let an older person go into the store before them. The weird phenomenon of everybody going out into the street and clapping for the NHS. A local market that was closed down ... (they) all got together and used what resources they had and took food around to people's houses," she says.

These "tiny stories" are touching, and they may be the key to us remembering our own histories, before they pass us by.

Up Next

The Sound of Science
This Musician Transforms Scientific Data Into Elaborate Melodies
This Musician Transforms Scientific Data Into Elaborate Melodies
The Sound of Science
This Musician Transforms Scientific Data Into Elaborate Melodies
When we convert complex data into sound and listen to it, quite often what emerges is something we can understand through sound, even though we could never understand it visually.

If you think staring at rows of numbers and graphs seems humdrum, these musicians agree. They are on a mission to expose new scientific information through sound, by turning flat datasets into musical scores --- creating the soundtrack for science: Listen to Mark Ballora’s sonification of singularity with flutes and electronics: Jenni Evans first met Mark Ballora at a Penn State social gathering. Both were professors at...

Thinking Differently
Is Autism a Mysterious Medical Condition or Part of the Spectrum of Human Diversity?
Is Autism a Mysterious Medical Condition or Part of the Spectrum of Human Diversity?
Thinking Differently
Is Autism a Mysterious Medical Condition or Part of the Spectrum of Human Diversity?
Rethinking Autism: Interview with NeuroTribes Author Steve Silberman

Rethinking Autism: Interview with NeuroTribes Author Steve Silberman

Thinking Differently
The Joy of Being Wrong
The Joy of Being Wrong
Watch Now
Thinking Differently
The Joy of Being Wrong
Can practicing intellectual humility make us smarter and happier? Science says yes.
Watch Now

Arguments on social media are notorious. People often naturally form an echo chamber of people with similar beliefs, and when people outside it start arguments, the discussion often becomes antagonistic. Is there a better way? Science suggests that a good starting point is by practicing intellectual humility. By admitting the possibility that we ourselves could be wrong, we’re able to better evaluate arguments and construct...

#fixingjustice - Prosecution
Exclusive Interview: How Miriam Krinsky is Leading Us to a Smarter & More...
Miriam Krinsky
#fixingjustice - Prosecution
Exclusive Interview: How Miriam Krinsky is Leading Us to a Smarter & More...
Her organization is bringing together a new generation of prosecutors with a shared vision of fair, compassionate,...

Her organization is bringing together a new generation of prosecutors with a shared vision of fair, compassionate, and responsible criminal justice reform.

Catalysts
A Game-Changer for Chronic Homelessness
A Game-Changer for Chronic Homelessness
Watch Now
Catalysts
A Game-Changer for Chronic Homelessness
He turned a food truck for the homeless into a thriving 51-acre community.
Watch Now

Mobile Loaves & Fishes is an organization with a new approach to tackling homelessness - putting community first. Their Community First! Village provides affordable, long-term housing for the chronically homeless. They find through housing and a community that emphasizes respect and relationships, chronically homeless individuals are able to finally heal from trauma and begin to thrive, work, and live better lives....

Relentless
This Fearless Principal Used UFC & Skateboards to Save a Failing School
This Fearless Principal Used UFC & Skateboards to Save a Failing School
Watch Now
Relentless
This Fearless Principal Used UFC & Skateboards to Save a Failing School
How one relentless, unconventional principal rallied an underdog school.
Watch Now

Hamish Brewer, the unconventional principal of Fred Lynn Middle School, went viral and won praise for his work turning the school around. But can he rally the school to the next huge milestone - regaining accreditation? Since moving from New Zealand to the United States, tattooed, skateboarding principal Hamish Brewer has helped inspire teachers and students at lower-income schools to smash people’s expectations. After his...

Grandkids on Demand
Grandkids on Demand
Watch Now
Grandkids on Demand
A new service provides “grandkids on demand.”
Watch Now

Seniors often need help or companionship - but there might not be anyone to call. Papa is a new service that connects them with college students for help with household tasks, transportation, technology--and companionship. This allows seniors to maintain independence and stay in their homes rather than assisted living facilities. It also provides college students with a great way to earn extra cash and develop work...

Culture
This Week in Ideas: Unveiling Google Earth VR, China Goes All in on CRISPR, Cuba's...
This Week in Ideas: Unveiling Google Earth VR, China Goes All in on CRISPR, Cuba's Cancer Vaccine
Culture
This Week in Ideas: Unveiling Google Earth VR, China Goes All in on CRISPR, Cuba's...
Google releases some beautiful VR, human trials of gene-editing technology CRISPR, and importing Cuba's cancer...
By Mike Riggs

Google releases some beautiful VR, human trials of gene-editing technology CRISPR, and importing Cuba's cancer vaccine.