Birds twitter outside my door. My children and those of the neighbors shriek and play in their respective yards. Every so often, my partner or I head out to procure supplies. Every day is an exhausting, illuminating adventure on ½ acre.
Today, I’m pondering the similarities and differences between my work for the Historical Society now, in the time of COVID-19, and the lives of the Lexington residents who lived through, for example, the 1721 smallpox epidemic.
For my very selfish part, I am grateful to have a home, a job (and the ability to do said job from home), and the flexibility to teach my kids and work at the same time. Some of these things would have been possible in 18th century Lexington, but some would not (like a paying job outside the home - I am still a woman).
Without getting into modern politics, what are some of the pros or cons you can think of for living in 1721 or 2020 during an epidemic of disease?
*On a side note, it is extremely interesting to be an historian living through an historical moment. I feel as though anyone in the library/archives/museum field has a heightened awareness (our “Spidey sense,” so to speak) of what materials we should be collecting, what stories we should be preserving, whose voices we should be seeking out in this historic moment. This pandemic has changed almost everything about what we do, how we interact, even who we are. It’s a watershed moment in global and U.S. history and it is fascinating (though sometimes terrifying) to live through it.*
-Stacey Fraser, Collections and Outreach Manager
Well... it is not just archivists at home these days. In recent weeks, many of us have been spending a lot more time at home than we normally do. For some professions, working from home was a fairly easy transition. For those of us in the museum field, we have had to become a little bit more creative – which, of course, is not always a bad thing!
One might think that there is not a lot to keep an archivist busy without easy and immediate access to all our institution’s collections. But think again! While research and other activities that require physical proximity to collections are obviously proving to be a bit more difficult, there are numerous other projects that I have been able to work on. Some of these projects have been “back burner” projects for quite a while – always on my radar, but never of immediate importance. Thus, they always seem to get pushed aside while more pressing items retain priority. This pandemic era, where research requests and archival programs have been limited, has proven to be an excellent time to bump up these items on the to-do list and ensure that they are completed properly.
For example, I have been able to use this time to work on updating our Emergency Preparedness Plan to ensure that it reflects all current information. New data was added regarding our Archives and Research Center, since we just recently completed our collections move into this new building. I was also able to add an entirely new section on an emergency response plan for a pandemic based on what we learned from our recent experiences – which, I must say, is something I never thought that I would have to write.
Additionally, as part of a staff-wide initiative regarding volunteering, I have also been able to work on an Archival Volunteer Handbook, which will formalize our volunteer program in the archives and help to standardize the volunteer requirements and outline specific processes. I have also been able to work on a few different Finding Aids for some of the collections in our holdings, so that access will be made easier for researchers when we can once again accommodate them. And of course, there is always advance preparation to be done for future programming and initiatives, as well as the day-to-day answering of emails, inquiries, and smaller research requests that can be completed through access to our digital collections. Getting to flesh out all these smaller projects, though, has assured me that, when we can finally return to our offices, our historic houses, and our collections, we can hit the ground running stronger than ever.
However, I have also been doing a whole lot of brainstorming. Archives exist to preserve documents, records, and collective memory. In our case, this preservation concerns Lexington’s history specifically. Right now, Lexington, along with the rest of the world, is in the midst of a particularly challenging time in its history. As a community and as individuals, these challenges of daily life are necessarily being met in unique and sometimes highly creative ways. For the benefit of future generations, I believe that it is imperative that we capture this moment in Lexington’s history as best we can, thereby creating a compilation of “What Life Was Like” during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
Many of you will recall our “Lexington Remembers: World War I” events that took place in 2018. During this time, I realized that while our collections chronicled big events in Lexington that took place during World War I, many of the stories of daily life were lacking. One of the most prominent examples of this is the fact that we had surprisingly little in our collections regarding the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. The few items that we did have were pertaining to one man, Dr. Fred S. Piper, who was involved in H Company in Lexington and as a medical professional during epidemic. Dr. Piper documented that there were likely 500 or more cases of the flu in Lexington by November of 1918, and it was proving no less fatal here than anywhere else. (See our World War I Collection online for more information.) Data kept in town offices could provide vital statistics… but why do we have no records personalizing the experiences of the citizens in town? How were people feeling? How did they navigate daily life? How did they respond to and handle the logistics of the Presidential Election of 1918?
With the exception that we are not simultaneously facing a World War (and, albeit, this is no small exception), there are many similarities to be drawn between this outbreak in 1918 and the outbreak we are facing today. However, this time I am hoping to better document this period in Lexington’s history: the impact of schools and businesses being closed; the heroism of those still working in the medical field or as essential workers; the challenges of those working from home or who are not able to work at all; the experiences of those who have been isolated, ill, or lost a loved one; and anything else that sheds insight on the experiences of the individual. How has this experience affected YOU?
Numerous other historical and cultural organizations are also finding this documentation to be critical. You can take a peek at some impressive initiatives that have been started by Massachusetts Historical Society, Wisconsin Historical Society, New York Historical Society, Heinz History Center, university archives such as at Carnegie Mellon University, and dozens of others throughout the country and world. Though we are a much smaller institution, Lexington Historical Society will be launching its own collecting initiative in the near future, so please stay tuned for how you can affect the way that this time in history is remembered. Please consider joining us in this community project!
P.S. Want to brainstorm with us? Thankfully, there are a ton of great resources out there! Here is a very interesting article published in mid-April by Atlas Obscura entitled “How Museums Will Eventually Tell the Story of COVID-19.” And here’s another by Smithsonian Magazine: “As COVID-19 Reshapes the World, Cultural Institutions Collect Oral Histories.”
-Elizabeth Mubarek, Archives Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.