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Building the COVID-19 Archive

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Victoria Cain, Associate Professor of History, received an email one evening from Ella Irmiter, a student who’s co-op at the Plymouth Plantation had been narrowed due to the coronavirus. During Cain’s class, they had discussed how important it is to capture the experiences of ordinary people during extraordinary historical moments for the analysis of future scholars. In that class, Dean of NU Libraries Dan Cohen has served as a guest speaker, describing his own experience creating a crowdsourced 9/11 archive. Shouldn’t someone, the students asked, be collecting information around the COVID-19 pandemic?

Two days later, Cain and Irmiter had joined the leadership team of The Journal of a Plague Year, an international digital archive that is crowdsourcing images, stories, videos, oral histories and ephemera related to the pandemic.

This program embodies the Experiential Liberal Arts by combining teaching and rapidly changing, real-world research that will be publicly accessible. Historians and students are working closely together in a unique instructional and learning environment to gather items to add to the repository, curate exhibits, and analyze data in the archive as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds. Most important, they are collecting stories from communities whose stories have been historically marginalized in archives. “We’re ensuring that their voices will not be silenced by time,” says Cain. “This is a tremendous undertaking, and we couldn’t do it without our students.”

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