Living Through History

Suffolk archivists and historians are capturing a real-world record of our lives during COVID-19

Artwork by Chianna Calafiore, BA ’21

Story by Andrea Grant
Artwork by Chianna Calafiore, BA ’21

An Instagram image of a hand embroidered coronavirus. A screenshot from a virtual Biden/Harris presidential campaign event held via the video game Animal Crossing. Text message alerts from viral hot spots, heartfelt journal entries, and social media posts about everything from snarky mask signs to parenting support groups.

These are the new artifacts in a “born digital” archive that Suffolk historians are collecting to document the COVID-19 pandemic in Boston as part of an international project, A Journal of the Plague Year.

Staff in Suffolk’s Moakley Archive & Institute, history department faculty, and students are leading an effort across the city to solicit diverse digital snapshots of life during the coronavirus. What has emerged is a collection historians say will be invaluable in understanding the pandemic’s true impact in the future.

“The whole community plays an important role in making and collecting history,” History Professor Kathryn Lasdow says. “The archive is a record of the on-the-ground, real-world needs and experiences of people, documenting not only the outbreak but also how we continue to connect and live.”

Looking back to the 1918 pandemic

History major Lucy Pollock, Class of 2023, spent the past year documenting the pandemic and collecting oral histories in her Cape Cod community before taking an active role in the Journal of the Plague Year project. She has been surprised by the honesty and vulnerability of some submissions—especially those related to mental health and learning challenges during the past year.

“History doesn’t feel like history when you’re living through it,” Pollock says.

For her senior public history honors project, Pollock is comparing those accounts with ones from a century ago in an exhibit called “Vanguard: Boston in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” which will open later this fall. One obvious similarity between the 1918 and 2020 pandemics is the resistance to public health measures like mask wearing and business closures, although in 1918 the pushback came from “across the political spectrum” rather than breaking down along party lines, she says.

Lasdow and her collaborators—University Archivist Julia Howington and Records Manager Michael Dello Iacono of the Moakley Archive, and History Professor Pat Reeve—believe that the Boston archive project will help future generations see the pandemic era more clearly, while providing common ground as the city moves forward.

“Our hope is that even though we are gradually beginning to return to ‘normal,’ we still have a lot to learn about how the pandemic will shape our futures,” Lasdow says. “Though we have been distant, there is a beautiful sense of hope in thinking about the future together.”

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