‘Bigger than ourselves’: CMC COVID-19 digital archive preserves history for future generations

A laptop open to a website reads "Covid19@CMC Digital Archive."
The Covid19@CMC Digital Archive includes a variety of artifacts from the Claremont McKenna College community, such as journal entries, masks, artwork, social media posts, Zoom screenshots and more. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

A journal entry, a picture of a workspace, a painting of the San Francisco skyline — these household objects made their way to the Covid19@CMC Digital Archive, a digital archive documenting the experiences of Claremont McKenna College community members during the pandemic.

After seeing a New York Times article about efforts in the New York City community to create historical archives of COVID-19 experiences and efforts in other universities to create similar archives, CMC history professors Lily Geismer and Tamara Venit-Shelton and CMC alumna Becca Zimmerman CM ’18 decided to create a similar archive. 

The team primarily conducted oral history interviews through hour-long Zoom calls. They looked at various groups, including first-years, seniors, first-generation and low-income students, international students and student leaders on campus. 

“I think it’s a really powerful tool in history that many people don’t know about,” Zimmerman said. “When we think about doing history, we think of going to an archive and reading by yourself.”

In addition to oral history, the team collected different artifacts from CMC community members, including pictures of journal entries, masks, workspaces, personal artwork and more.

“[These are] all things that maybe seem mundane but will allow, hopefully, people of the future to make compelling arguments about our current moment,” Zimmerman said. 

The team also collected screenshots of family group chats, Zoom calls, Instagram posts, TikTok videos and other forms of electronic communication for the archive.

“So much of what we do exists on our mobile devices, and there’s really easy ways to just capture that and file it away” —Becca Zimmerman CM ’18

“The power of the screenshot cannot be understated,” Zimmerman said. “So much of what we do exists on our mobile devices, and there’s really easy ways to just capture that and file it away.”

The focus of the archive is on preserving information, especially for the purpose of studying history. Although many may believe that the study of history is solely centered around the past, it also gives people the ability to better understand and capture current events, the creators said.

“I think that people often think of history as kind of cloistered and removed and not really relevant,” Geismer said. “One of the big goals of this is to kind of show the power of history and its ability to kind of capture really transformative events and experiences.”  

Specifically, the archive’s focus on documenting CMC community members’ everyday experiences is distinct from other forms of preservation and history. 

“I’m a historian, and it’s often very easy to get the kind of official experience of something after it happened,” he said. “You can get what the president said at various different points or newspaper articles, but we wanted to get more of the kind of everyday lived experience,” Geismer said.  

During the process of interviewing community members, different researchers found many things that surprised them, namely the level of vulnerability of the interviewees and the ability of students to find the positives in their experiences. 

“My memory of March and the first few months of the lockdown in the United States were really of a lot of anxiety, a lot of misery,” Venit-Shelton said. “And certainly student interviews that we did this summer reflect all of that, but they also reflect this remarkable ability to appreciate the unexpected joy of being in that moment.” 

For some researchers, the process of interviewing other community members was difficult due to their personal connections to the pandemic: one of them lost three relatives to COVID-19. 

“I think it’s really hard to interview other people sometimes when the topic is just such a burden on you already and you’re constantly thinking about COVID-19 … interviewing people and asking them about it almost felt like I was invading their personal space,”  student researcher Annie Raines CM ’22 said.  

At the end of the day, the researchers hope that the public can better realize the impact that the pandemic is having on people and humanize the experiences of the pandemic. 

“I hope that people recognize the seriousness of this … I want to show that this is a real thing that’s impacting people, not only are people losing lives, but this is impacting people’s everyday life … We have to recognize that the issue is bigger than ourselves,” Raines said.

Specifically, the researchers wanted to highlight the complexity of inequities faced during the pandemic and how issues of identity and the pandemic intersected. 

“I think that preservation is inherently activist and so hopefully the public, upon learning about different people’s experiences and inequity of people’s experiences during COVID-19; I hope that this is a call to action,” Zimmerman said. 

For community members who are not directly involved in the research process, the team still recommends that they capture moments in their own histories by journaling and writing down memories.

“It is amazing to me how much we forget,” Venit-Shelton said. “There are certain moments that are seared in our memory … [but] when we are in these conditions of self-quarantine or lockdown, the days kind of have a sameness to them. So I think when you keep a journal … everyone will really appreciate having a kind of detailed document of the many changes that have happened.” 

Overall, the team hopes that their archive gives people a comprehensive view into the experiences of people during COVID-19 and captures it for generations to come. 

“I think it comes back to the power of storytelling, and I would say that this archive hopefully will shift people’s understandings and maybe texturize what we see as this kind of gray, monotonous year of 2020 … that’s always the goal of any good history or kind of commemorative project,” Zimmerman said.

The Covid19@CMC Digital Archive can be found on its website and on Instagram.

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