You’re a part of history.
© Provided by Salt Lake Tribune
(Photo courtesy of Jeremy Myntti/Willard Marriott Library) Librarian Jeremy Myntti, right, and his family social distancing during a visit.
That might be hard for people observing stay-at-home orders, taking care of kids and trying to work remotely to comprehend. But it’s true.
“Really, when anybody’s going through anything, do they feel like they’re making history? Generally not,” said Jeremy Myntti, head of digital library services at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. “Think about during World War II. People may have been standing in line to get groceries, to make their potato soup for the week. Did they feel like they were making history? No. But now when we look back on that, yes, they were.
“So even though we might just be sitting at home right now feeling like we’re doing nothing, this is going to be a big part of history.”
And the Marriott Library’s Utah COVID-19 Digital Collection wants to document what’s happening to people across the state. Utahns are encouraged to share their photos and stories.
“It will help to explain what happened during this time,” Myntti said. “What happened to the economy. What happened in terms of illness and deaths. So even though this doesn’t feel like a very historic time — it feels mundane and boring — we are definitely making history.
“People today might want to forget about all of this, but in the future people will want to know.”
Submissions become part of a public record that will be open to researchers in the decades, even centuries, to come. They will be raw data for historians to draw on.
“The function of a library is to capture, preserve, archive and make accessible. It’s a historian’s job to put that in context,” said Digital Initiatives librarian Anna Neatrour. “We’re really building research materials for future historians.”
You don’t have to go out of your way to create anything new for the project. Your social media posts — words and pictures — will be of interest to future generations.
“That’s the kind of thing that we’re wanting to capture — the way people’s lives have changed during this time,” Neatrour said. “Everybody has phones and can take pictures.”
Historians don’t have much of this kind of material from the 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic, “so we don’t know as much about how that affected daily life,” Neatrour said. “But this is something different that we can do right now.”
“And those won’t necessarily last unless we archive them,” Neatrour said.
As of midweek, the library had received about 200 submissions.
“It really ranges from more commonly occurring experiences — like social distancing at grocery stores, empty shelves in the supermarket because people are panic buying — to some really humorous ways that people deal with the pandemic,” said Rachel Wittman, digital curation librarian at the Marriott Library. “For example, people receiving gifts of toilet paper for their wedding anniversary.”
“A woman submitted multiple photos of her social distancing with a mannequin,” Neatrour said. “It’s kind of funny, but it’s also commentary and art, in a way. I think it’ll be interesting to see what kind of creative expression comes out of this period.”
Not all the submissions are lighthearted. One submitter who tested positive for COVID-19 has been quarantined in his basement. Others sent in photos of themselves getting tested at drive-thru facilities.
One submission came from a woman who went to Spain to visit her boyfriend at the end of February and was stuck there when COVID-19 hit that country hard. “It’s about how they were dealing with that,” Myntti said. “How they were trying to get back to the States. As of yesterday, she had made it back to Utah but her boyfriend is still stuck in Spain.”
But documenting the little things — like empty spaces where the toilet paper was supposed to be at the store — are also part of the story. “And that’s already going away,” Wittman said.
To date, a large majority of submissions have come from the more urban areas of Utah — Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties.
“But we want this collection to be more representative of the whole state,” Myntti said. “So, hopefully, we can get people in some of the more rural areas to submit some content on how they’re dealing with this.
“We’re hoping to be able to represent all types of people, all ages of people.”
They’re looking for stories from children as well as adults. They’ve reached out to public school teachers who’ve assigned their students to tell their stories, “but we’re always looking for more,” Neatrour said. “And we’d like stories of people who are running small businesses. That’s something that we don’t really have in the collection yet.”
And they’d like to hear more “stories from the front lines,” Myntti said. “What are the doctors and nurses going through?”
Utahns in the Salt Lake Valley have a unique pandemic experience. Like tens of millions of Americans, they’ve been staying at home — and those homes shook during the 5.7 earthquake centered near Magna on March 18, and in multiple aftershocks since then.
“We want to be able to document how that has affected the pandemic as well,” Myntti said. “We haven’t really had too much content, if any, related to the earthquakes. And that was certainly part of what’s been happening here.”
That’s made easier by the explosion of technology. Those suffering through the flu pandemic from 1918-20 didn’t have cellphones equipped with cameras or social media to share their thoughts.
“There’s so much digital information being shared through different social media sites. So many people are taking so many photographs,” Myntti said. “What’s going to happen to them in five or 10 years? If we’re not preserving that now, we’re going to lose all of this history relatively soon.”
Utah’s COVID-19 Digital Collection is one of many across the nation.
“This is part of a national movement to collect historical materials during this time,” Neatrour said. “There are multiple libraries and museums across the country that are pursuing similar projects. … We’re reaching out to the community to collect materials while the current state of things is fresh on everyone’s mind.”
To date, Utah’s project has received far more photos than stories, which doesn’t come as a surprise. “The easiest thing for people to do is snap a picture and then upload it,” Myntti said. “With a story, you kind of have to think more about that — think about what you really want to say.”
But no one should feel like they have to write the next Great American Novel. People are encouraged to share their social media posts from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram — whatever.
“We’ll take whatever we can get,” Myntti said. “There’s some people that have submitted two sentences. There are a couple of people that have submitted four-page-long documents talking about everything that they’ve been going through.”
There’s no form to fill out, no pattern to follow. People have asked if they can submit their daily journals — yes, of course. And they want to know when — daily? Weekly? When the pandemic is over? And the answer is — yes.
“We’re giving people the option,” Myntti said. “Whenever they feel it’s appropriate, they can submit their story. … Every story is important, no matter what you’re going through. We want to hear from you and see how this is affecting you.”
And your stories just might end up affecting others. Neatrour was struck by photos of a “Hello out there” sign in the window of someone’s home.
“I think that kind of brings home what it’s like to be quarantined and kind of reaching out to people,” she said.