The pandemic time capsule

When it comes to penning the story of our coronavirus spring, historians and archivists look to digital time capsules to help cut through the noise.

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,

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.

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.

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