Library faculty members working to help document the pandemic for research and the future

Photo of the Riddell Library and Learning Centre.

On March 23, all the playgrounds in Calgary were closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

When a remarkable event unfolds in real time, it’s difficult to understand its historical impact in the moment.

Mount Royal Library faculty members are seeking members of the campus community to help document the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on personal, academic and community life. The goal of the project is to create a historical resource for future teaching, learning and research about local life during the pandemic.

The project invites MRU community members to share how their experiences at work and at home have changed as a result of the pandemic, and to document how it has affected their learning, teaching and communities. The project is being led by Assistant Professor and Archivist/Special Collections Librarian Peter Houston, and Associate Professor Alice Swabey.

“We'd like to connect with people across the entire MRU community, in all sorts of different roles,” says Swabey, who also teaches in the library’s Information Literacy program.

“Hearing about student experiences during the pandemic will be particularly valuable. I think it will resonate with students in the future looking back on these times. The more voices we hear from, the better story we will be able to tell about what it meant for everyone to live through this pandemic. I really hope we can hear from instructors and support staff and administrators, along with students.”

Houston and Swabey have put out a call for participants to contribute their photos, essays, journals, videos, oral histories or creative work. The project also poses questions for the MRU community to answer about the challenges, hopes and fears they face during the pandemic. This project aims to tell the COVID-19 stories of the MRU community by collecting experiences and artifacts of life from these uncertain times and preserving them for historical record in the Archives and Special Collections.

“We'd especially love to hear from MRU students about how they adapted to online delivery of courses, and how their summer plans and daily lives have been impacted. We would also like to receive contributions from MRU alumni wherever they are in the world, as they're a diverse group and I'm sure they have a wealth of interesting stories about their experiences during the pandemic,” Houston says.

Contributions will help researchers of the future ― and perhaps, ourselves ― to understand what it meant to live, work and study during the outbreak. According to Houston, since the pandemic started, there's been a surge of interest in past pandemics such as the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu ― how was it spread? How did people protect themselves? How did society and the economy recover? He believes that this collection, with its focus on personal reflections and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be of real interest to a wide array of future researchers including social historians, sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists.

Photo of two students in the Riddell Library and Learning Centre.

Students, faculty and staff are asked to contribute works documenting how their lives have been impacted during the pandemic.

“It will be fascinating for future MRU students, faculty, and community members to look back and understand how we managed to live through this challenging time, and how the University and its people were able to adapt and carry on.”

For this project Swabey and Houston have created an easy way for the public to submit digital objects related to the pandemic. Contributors can go here to upload files through a simple two-step process.

“We've only had about 20 contributions so far, but we haven't advertised the project much yet so we're hoping that there will be a lot of interest soon. You can see the contributions we've received so far in a gallery at the bottom of the Documenting the Pandemic webpage,” Houston says.

So far most of the contributions have been photographs (baking and gardening projects, closed playgrounds, home offices, and so on), but Houston and Swabey would like to encourage the MRU community to get creative.

“Write a poem, draw or paint something, record a song or an oral history. We're happy to receive anything you create that best tells what you want to say about how the pandemic is affecting you and the people you know.

“And it doesn't necessarily have to be digital … due to current social distancing restrictions we, of course, can't accept physical items at the moment, but we'd be happy to in the future.”

Swabey and Houston hope to help to create awareness for this initiative, which represents the value Mount Royal places on research and community building. “This is a situation we have never faced in our lifetimes and, I hope, will never face again,” Swabey says.

“I think it is important to have a record of such a significant global event that has touched lives all over the globe, so that when it has passed we are able to look back and accurately observe the ways in which we experienced it right here in Calgary. If we think about the interest folks have right now in the 1918 flu, that really tells us the importance of capturing this sort of research ― people want and need to know how similar events unfolded in the past and how we responded as a society ― what worked, what failed, what should be done differently in the future, how or if life changed as a result of these experiences. I hope our project will help contribute in some way to future understanding of current events.”

Submit to the Documenting a Pandemic project here.

May 20, 2020 ― Jonathan Anderson

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