While there is no end date in sight for the coronavirus pandemic, each day that passes is historic, with new losses of life, developments, fears and disruptions to everyday life.
The scale of the devastation is still to be determined, but scientists are concerned the virus’ spread and the mortality rate of those who get it could make this the worst public health crisis the U.S. has experienced in more than a century.
And the Maryland Historical Society wants to document this moment in real time, soliciting residents and business owners to share their experiences, from people working to stop the spread of COVID-19 on the front lines to those who are cooped up at home.
Allison Tolman, vice president of collections at the Maryland Historical Society, said it’s important to have a record for future generations to consult.
“We also have to think about who comes after us and the next 100 years, what are those people going to have to look back on,” she said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic started to ramp up in the U.S., historians at the society began looking at letters and diaries from the 1918 flu epidemic, which saw more people die from the disease than the Great War that immediately preceded it.
The goal with this project is to create a record for the next researcher to look through sometime down the line. Nothing is too trivial or mundane, because every detail paints a picture of our collective experience was like.
“Even though we’re looking at this as the new normal, people will look back and say, ‘Wow, it was scary to go to the grocery store,'” Tolman said. “That should be captured, so people in the future can look back on it.”
Of course, many of us our documenting our own experiences and sharing our thoughts through the only way we know how in 2020: social media. But it’s far from certain those posts will be preserved for years to come.
“I’m not confident everyone’s tweets are going to survive the test of time,” Tolman said.
The historical society is working to gather two collections. The first, Letters from the Homefront, asks all Marylanders “to send their personal stories of how the pandemic is impacting their lives.” The second, Business Unusual, specifically targets business owners, workers and customers to share stories about how the pandemic has crippled the economy.
Since starting the initiative last month, the society has received several letters each day, and more recently there’s been an uptick, Tolman said. Some teachers, who are instructing students remotely, have assigned entire classes to write stories and submit them.
One student from the Naval Academy Primary School in Annapolis wrote about missing their friends.
“It seems so mundane. Looking back on this, when years have passed, it’s a really interesting moment,” Tolman said.
Over at its Underbelly blog, the historical society is highlighting one letter per day.
There’s no set plan at this moment for what do with all these stories after the pandemic has ended. Tolman said there have been talks with the Enoch Pratt Free Library about producing a physical copy of the stories to place in the library’s collection.
When the society undertook a similar archiving project, in conjunction with University of Maryland Baltimore County, to document the Baltimore Uprising, the institutions built a searchable online archive with photos, videos, recordings and written accounts.
For now, the main goal is to collect as many as possible. The society has asked all the museums in the Baltimore region, public libraries and local historical societies to put out a call for submissions.
So how does today compare to 1918?
Obviously, our current situation continues to evolve, but Tolman said she can see similarities after reading century-old accounts.
People back then experienced a similar level of fear and other emotions as they battled what Tolman called “an invisible enemy.” And there are examples of public spaces, such as stadiums and museums, being turned into field hospitals the same way the Baltimore Convention Center is now.
There are major differences, though–particularly in technology that allows many people to work from home and be entertained in their living rooms. Computers, television, the internet and cell phones are a huge advantage to carry out the social distancing needed to slow the spread of the virus, Tolman said.
And those tools also help disseminate information instantly, like when Gov. Larry Hogan sent a text message with his “stay at home” order to every cell phone in the state.
“You can imagine how long it would have taken for the governor of Maryland in 1918 to tell everyone ‘Go into your home’ with the level of authority we do now,” Tolman said.
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