When the coronavirus pandemic hit the UNC campus in March 2020, archivists at University Libraries began looking for records about the 1918 Influenza pandemic at UNC. We found that regional newspapers such as the Greeley Tribune documented much of the campus response, but we found little documentation in our own archives. There are a couple of photos in the yearbook, some mentions in the student newspaper, and a handful of discussions in Board of Trustees minutes. Where were the personal stories, the images of a socially distanced campus, the emotional experiences of the UNC community? We knew then that future historians, students, and researchers would look to the archives not only for factual information, but for personal narratives, mementos, and visual imagery. So we launched our documentation effort known as the Coronavirus at UNC collection.
In April 2020, we asked the Bear community to help us build the collection. We requested physical and digital items, including personal written accounts, photographs, and videos. We also asked for volunteers to participate in oral history interviews, which would be conducted over Zoom and captured as videos. Students, staff, and faculty responded. Faculty submitted images of a typical Zoom class and encouraged their students to submit assignments documenting the pandemic. Students donated photos and written accounts, and a staff member gave us copies of her pandemic-inspired comic titled Grim Days. Archivist Laura Uglean Jackson conducted oral histories with two graduate students and another with Associate Vice President of Administration, Blaine Nickeson, who chaired the Coronavirus Task Force at UNC.
During this same time, undergraduate student Aubry Van Oss was interning in the Archives and Special Collections Department. Up until early March 2020, her work focused on arranging and describing physical collections. When campus closed, she quickly pivoted to assisting with the coronavirus story collecting efforts. She helped plan the project and saved the emails sent by campus administrators to her and her parents. She also learned how to conduct oral histories and interviewed three UNC students to capture their experiences. Two more undergraduate interns, Jessica Kneefel in fall 2020 and Nikaiya Lawson in spring 2021, assisted with the project by interviewing students and professors and creating written transcripts.
So far, the collection contains oral histories, personal written accounts, photographs, class assignments, a comic strip, websites, and more. Most of the material is digital, which has made managing and providing access more challenging. Born-digital formats are more susceptible to loss and require somewhat advanced technology to preserve and make accessible according to archival best practices. Despite the obstacles that digital formats present, much of the collection is already available online through Digital UNC and Archive-It. The full collection is described in an online finding aid.
The Archives and Special Collections Department is committed to preserving the personal experiences of the Bear community for research, curiosity, and general posterity. We continue to add to the collection and will acquire stories and memories well into the future. We recognize that the pandemic was, and still is, a source of trauma, stress, and unhappiness; many people will not want or be ready to share for a long time, possibly ever. A number of our archivist colleagues around the United States have delayed coronavirus documentation projects for this very reason.
If you are interested in sharing your story or contributing to the collection, we would love to hear from you. More information on donating can be found here. Whether or not you choose to participate in this collecting effort, we hope you will find something in the collection of interest, comfort, humor, or some combination thereof.