CSUSM library unveils exhibit to document pandemic

Other local institutions are creating similar archival projects

Sonya Vargas, Staff Writer

The library’s exhibit on the pandemic hopes to capture and document this historical moment for future generations. (Screenshot of the Stories & Snapshots exhibit website)

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been collectively felt on a global scale. Throughout San Diego County, various archivists have been putting together materials from a communal perspective to document this moment in history. 

CSUSM’s Kellogg Library is no different, as the library’s Special Collections department started Together/Apart: The COVID-19 Community Memory Archive last spring, a project to document the pandemic

The library recently unveiled Stories & Snapshots: Documenting a Year of the Pandemic, an exhibit based on submissions to the archive, kicking it off with a virtual panel discussion on Feb. 23.

“Once COVID came to Washington state in June and to New York about a year ago, it was apparent that this was about to be a life altering experience,” said the library’s Head of Special Collections Sean Visintainer during the event. 

As an archivist, Visintainer was dealing with the pressures of going virtual but also thinking about what can be done to document this historic happening. He teamed up with other departments of the library who also found it imperative to capture this time, leading to the creation of the Together/Apart archive.

The idea of Together/Apart was inspired from similar projects at other institutions, such as Washington University’s Documenting Ferguson project on Ferguson’s racial justice protests and Boston University’s Our Marathon project on the Boston Marathon bombing. 

“These related collecting projects based their themes on events where something traumatic and tragic happened, in an attempt to collect things in real time,” said Visintainer. 

Visintainer also said that CSUSM’s Library Technology and Initiative Department played a large role in making this idea a reality by creating a site where collaborators can submit their work anonymously and from a distance. 

“All of this is done in house so that big tech and Google wouldn’t have any access to health or personal information if submitted,” Visintainer said. 

The collecting site was off the ground in late March/early April 2020. The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a story about the project in April, which helped in gaining interest and participation in the archive.  

“Keeping awareness up from faculty and students at CSUSM has led to gaining over 400 contributions from almost 200 members of campus and regional community to date,” Visintainer said. 

Other San Diegans aiming to preserve these moments in time have been the SDSU COVID-19 Memory Project which is specific to the San Diego State University (SDSU) community and headed by SDSU’s University Archivist Amanda Lanthorne and their Assistant Head of Special Collections and University Archives Anna Culbertson.

 “This project is a way of capturing the SDSU community’s pandemic response and experience for long-term preservation and future research,” says Culbertson, who also spoke at the event to unveil CSUSM’s Together/Apart archive. 

As an archivist, Culbertson said it was definitely an intuitive project. She extends reverence to the first archivists in Southern California who pioneered the way for those like her, and others in these roles alongside each other. 

In the beginning of setting out on this endeavor Lanthorne pointed out to Culbertson that little documentation was recorded from the Spanish Flu of 1918 and to what extent it affected their institution’s community at that time. They are unable to draw any real comparison from then and now. This highlighted just how critical it was to record this current phenomenon. 

SDSU’s project accepts submissions from students, staff, administration and alumni of their San Diego and Imperial Valley campuses.  

SDSU’s Memory Project is especially interested in the experiences of nursing faculty, students who are also caregivers and SDSU community members who are experiencing job, food and/or housing insecurity. The project would also like to see more documentation on businesses being affected by the pandemic.

Lastly, the San Diego History Center launched History Happening Now: Share Your Story for San Diego locals to share their experiences through a first person narrative. 

At CSUSM’s panel discussion, Tina Zarpour spoke on behalf of the museum, saying that the project was to “focus and broadly tell the diverse story of San Diego’s past, present and future.”

The museum asks participants for their year of birth, the year their family moved to San Diego, how their life has changed with COVID and whether the pandemic has impacted their perspective of living in San Diego during times such as this. 

To date, the museum has received nearly 400 entries through San Diego County and various from outside of the county as well. 

For further information on each of these projects, check out the following links. 

CSUSM’s Together/Apart archive: together-apart.csusm.edu/ 

CSUSM’s Stories & Snapshots: Documenting a Year of the Pandemic exhibit: biblio.csusm.edu/content/context-library-series 

SDSU’s COVID-19 Memory Project: library.sdsu.edu/covid-19-memory-project 

San Diego History Center’s History Happening Now: Share Your Story: historyhappeningnow.org/shared-stories/

Sonya Vargas is a staff writer for The Cougar Chronicle. She is currently in her final semester of her undergraduate as a social science major with a minor in psychology. She aims to serve underprivileged youth and families in the future and continue writing. In her spare time, she enjoys being in nature, getting creative and enjoying the simple things.

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