2020, the year you want to forget? Archivists say not so fast

Archivists across Ontario have set up ways for everyday people to document how the pandemic has affected them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left a disruptive mark on this holiday season, as family gatherings turned into Zoom calls and everyone felt less together. Accommodations like these are disappointing and maybe worth forgetting, but for Ontario’s archives it’s necessary to remember these extraordinary times.

On the website for the Ontario Jewish Archives (OJA), there are posts from ordinary people who’ve shared photos, video and descriptions of their COVID-19 experiences.

In one post, the Reitman family shared photos from Passover seder and described how the pandemic transformed it. Relatives around the world met during a Zoom call, paid tribute to an uncle who died from COVID-19, and affirmed their togetherness on the Passover holiday.

“Those kinds of stories help illuminate the COVID-19 experience,” said Donna Bernardo-Ceriz, managing director of the OJA and its

COVID-19 Documentation Project


The pandemic is an obvious historical moment, and no one knows this more than archivists. As society went into lockdown, individuals and families isolated, and the wearing of masks and social distancing became customary, many of Ontario’s archives started preserving those experiences so future generations can study and understand the pandemic.

“The idea was we would put up a page on our website inviting people to submit their materials,” Bernardo-Ceriz said.

People can submit “whatever they feel is reflective of what they’re experiencing,” she explained. “It can be photographs, Zoom recordings, writings — really, it can be anything.”

The Ontario Jewish Archives, along with archives from the University of Toronto, Ryerson University and Queen’s University, have all created web pages where community members can post personal materials and thoughts related to their COVID-19 experiences. Each of these COVID-19 archives aims to document life during the pandemic.

“I think it’ll be really interesting for students and researchers to come to this material and see what people were creating, what people were thinking, and how this moment will be remembered,” said Olivia Wong, a curatorial special at Ryerson University’s Archives and Special Collections who is working on the

COVID-19 Community Experiences Archive


For now, archives are not collecting physical records because of social distancing measures. At

Queen’s University Archive

, they anticipate collecting physical items like pandemic-related arts and crafts when it’s safe.

“It’s something we’re looking toward in order to round out everything,” said Jeremy Heil, a digital and private records archivist in Kingston, Ont.

Digital records are laying the groundwork for COVID-19 archives, which makes sense when the pandemic has forced people to work from home and rely on digital technology to stay connected.

“Digital records are very reflective of our times,” Heil observed. “So I would say web archives are probably the richest resource we have.”

When it comes to storing these digital records, Queen’s pays for storage space by subscribing to a service called

Archive It


Queen’s archivists have been adding records from university and community webpages that “capture COVID-19 stories and stories that relate directly to the experience,” said Heil. These include notices and articles about masks and online education.

So far, U of T, Ryerson, and Queen’s are not making their COVID-19 collections public, while they curate and organize material for future display and research. The OJA has shared some COVID-19 contributions to its website.

“We wanted to share some of the material that had come in,” Bernardo-Ceriz said. “To encourage others to donate and to give a sense of what we’re looking for.”

Normally, archives proactively seek donors and contributions, but the pandemic’s social distancing measures forced archives to take a more passive role by inviting contributions.

Tys Klumpenhouwer, an archivist at the University of Toronto’s Archives and Record Management Services (UTARMS), said this new approach fits within a broader trend across archives.

“These experience projects are part of a shift in archives giving up the traditional power they’ve had in deciding what’s in and what’s out,” Klumpenhouwer said. “We’re shifting that power to the people we want to document and giving them the tools to document themselves.”

Traditionally, archives employed a top-down approach by collecting materials from powerful institutions.

When U of T archived the 1918 Spanish flu

, it stored administrative records but left out responses and material from students and the community.

U of T and many other archives are now seeking to correct imbalances like these by involving everyday people in their collection and appraisal of records.

Using questionnaires and prompts, archives are asking ordinary people to submit their COVID-19 experiences.

U of T’s COVID-19 Community Experience Questionnaire

asks community members to describe the pandemic’s impact on their lives, how they perceive U of T’s response, and what they miss about the U of T campus.

“U of T has all these lives,” private records archivist Daniela Ansovini said. “It’s a social place, a place of labour, and a place of study, so the questionnaire gives us more to understand what U of T means in people’s lives.”

The goal is to “collect everybody’s experience,” Klumpenhouwer said. “So people a hundred years from now can see what everyone’s response was, good or bad.”

This is the first time U of T’s archive has done a project like this.

“Is this a new way for us to collect and document people’s experiences and memories of events,” asked Klumpenhouwer. “This project could be the first of many or the start of a new trend.”

At Defining Moments Canada — a heritage and educational organization that creates digital resources for teachers and researchers — there’s a mandated interest in telling history from the perspectives of everyday people.

During the organization’s

2018 Spanish flu project

, “Defining Moments Canada went to work telling this story through individual narratives and how ordinary Canadians experienced it,” said executive director Jenifer Terry. “Versus statistics on how many people were

infected or died


Users can find an interactive story map and an artifact gallery on the Defining Moments Canada website, which tells the Spanish flu stories of nurses, mothers and soldiers returning from the First World War.

“It’s incredibly important for people to see history from the bottom-up,” Terry said. “It can really send the message home that people are making history and are a part of history every day.”

Archives hope these stories will give researchers a more complete COVID-19 history to study in the future.

“It’s up to archives to encourage this archiving and build these collections,” said Ryerson’s Olivia Wong. “But it’s also up to folks to do some personal archiving themselves.”

“Do it in a way that speaks to you and your experience and then value it,” suggested U of T’s Ansovini.

There are countless ways to record or document one’s COVID-19 experience, whether it’s through photography, journaling, creative writing, filmmaking, painting, and so much more.

Archives suggest recording background information like your location, the date, and who you’re with, too. When it’s time to submit, find a local archive and they’ll help.

Archives plan to keep collecting COVID-19 records and experiences for several years.

“Our plan is to keep it open for a number of years,” said Klumpenhouwer. “Because there are people who’ll be affected by this for years.”

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques