Archiving a Plague Year
Building a Crowdsourced Digital Archive of COVID-19
A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19 (JOTPY) is a crowdsourced digital public archive chronicling daily life during pestilential chaos. The archive’s title nods to Daniel Defoe’s account of London’s Great Plague, and, like Defoe’s book, covers the pandemic experience—large and small. What do we accept? Whatever people find important about this moment. As a result, our archive is filled with items from around the world, from images of graduation chairs in empty gymnasiums, to reports about Indigenous health and food crises, to an exhausted Peruvian police officer collapsing outside a hospital.
Founded in March by Arizona State University professors Catherine O’Donnell and Mark Tebeau, JOTPY has grown to nearly 5,000 items in just two months. The archive’s curatorial collective has also expanded quickly, with more than 150 archivists, graduate students, K-12 teachers, professors, and programmers now shaping the project. The archive and its global team operate on the model of “shared authority,” inviting public collaboration and flattening traditional academic hierarchies.
Our collecting began as a 100-meter dash but it’s become a marathon.
Whereas Defoe assembled his narrative of plague-ridden London some 57 years after the event, JOTPY is collecting stories of COVID-19 as they unfold—what archivists, public historians, and curators call “rapid-response” collecting. Other public digital archives, most notably the September 11 Digital Archive and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, have set the precedent for this kind of collecting, with historians and archivists sprinting to gather evidence of a tragedy in a single place. But COVID-19’s all-the-time, everywhere nature has forced us to redefine “rapid response.” Our collecting began as a 100-meter dash but it’s become a marathon.
Playing the long game has given us more time to think about how to build an archive that will be useful decades down the line. For example, we spent the last two months deciding on broad yet relevant subject headings based on our collections but also agreed to include folksonomic tagging, allowing users to define relevant terms. We ensure consistency with “official” subject categories and curatorial tags, while simultaneously empowering the public to create their own vocabulary. The result is a living, breathing archival language that changes and adapts with our user base. We imagine that future researchers will find the language shifts in our archive a fascinating way to study the long-term developments of the pandemic, but they can do that only if we build the capacity for that type of research now.
The pandemic’s slow roll opens other collecting possibilities. We’ve been able to plan out a series of longitudinal oral histories so future researchers can understand how one person’s account of the impact of coronavirus changes over six months, a year, or five years. We also hope longitudinal collections of digital ephemera will reveal shifting public preoccupations and trends. Our first waves of contributions recorded empty toilet paper shelves and PPE, whereas contributions now capture graduation celebrations and reopening procedures. What will the iconic coronavirus image be in the fall? In 2022? In 2025?
The ongoing nature of our collecting work has also enabled us to think critically about structural inequities and digital divides. Over the last several years, historians and archivists have worked to address digital and physical archival silences, cultivating face-to-face relationships and building long-term trust with underrepresented communities. The pandemic has strained these efforts. Indigenous, African American, and Latinx communities have been and continue to be especially hard-hit by the virus. Longtime community partners now face furloughs and empty grant coffers, and casual community events that might have led to new partnerships have been canceled. Historians and archivists face an ethical quandary as a result. It is insensitive to ask suffering strangers to spend their time and emotional resources contributing to an archive. It’s also wrong not to try.
Traditionally marginalized communities aren’t the only ones whose experiences may be left out in the archival cold. Many elderly communities have now found themselves thrust into a temporarily marginalized status as a result of the pandemic. Older folks whose work and social lives are not conducted primarily online have now become invisible in this all-digital world of collecting. Our informal acquisition policy of “anything you define as important” is broad and inviting, but only for those with the technology to contribute.
JOTPY offers a rare opportunity for both students and instructors to analyze how the historical record is formed while helping to shape it themselves.
To mitigate these silences and increase JOTPY’s collections, we are leaning heavily on pedagogy. While universities and colleges tend to skew young, white, and middle class, students can actively work to overcome archival silences and build students’ civic character in the process by connecting with their local communities. Instructors can use the archive to teach students fundamentals about history in action, information architecture, metadata, and the politics of archives. Students have also seized on the resume building elements of the project, the real-life skills like digital literacy and networking. Working with the JOTPY archive, students have the opportunity to further flatten traditional hierarchies by sharing authority with professional archivists and taking on important leadership positions with guidance from professionals in the field.
We invite you to browse our archive. Share your own story. Take a picture of your neighborhood. Record a short video about your quarantine experience or about the transition to our new “normal.” Email us if you’d like to join the curatorial collective or find out more about what we’re doing.
We also invite you to teach the archive. JOTPY offers a rare opportunity for both students and instructors to analyze how the historical record is formed while helping to shape it themselves. Students will be engaged in relevant, important, purposeful work that will define how we remember and understand this moment. In our attempt to lower the bar of entry, the JOTPY team is currently developing modules for educators at all levels to adapt, remix, and reuse during classes this summer and in the coming school year. These are pending, so check back often or inquire with us about new resources.
Tom Beazley is a graduate student of history at Arizona State University. Victoria Cain is an associate professor of history at Northeastern University. Rebecca S. Wingo is an assistant professor of history and director of public history at the University of Cincinnati. She tweets @rebeccawingo.
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