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What's New: Documenting COVID-19 at CSUN

eNews Edition: Fall 2020

Contributed by April Feldman and Elizabeth Altman

As of October 2020, the CSUN community has been working and learning remotely for seven months, as has much of California, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on in this period, University Archives, a unit within the Library’s Special Collections & Archives, launched the Documenting COVID-19 project in an effort to collect expressions of Matadors’ experiences during this crisis and preserve them for future generations. Project Archivist April Feldman talked with us about the endeavor.

Can you describe the vision behind this project?

The University Archives launched this effort to collect “in the now,” to capture events as they happened. The level of disruption to daily life made it clear the pandemic would be one of the 21st century’s defining moments. Not just the virus itself, the number of infections and the death toll, but what it’s doing to economies, politics, food production and distribution, education, to people—the list just goes on and on. The science and statistics of COVID are one thing, but I think what will make it real for people that didn’t live through it are the personal stories.

How do the items you hope to collect through this project fit in with the purpose of a University Archives?

While the primary mission of the University Archives is to collect, preserve, and make accessible the “official” papers of the university we also try to document the student, faculty, and staff experience. It’s these experiences that make up the shared social and cultural environment of our community and COVID-19 has put enormous pressure on that environment. We've recently moved CSUN history collections into the University Archives, so materials relating to the administrative, political, structural, intellectual and social history of the university are gathered in once place. This new collection is analogous to the memorabilia and photos contributed to the University Archives following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, although its contents will likely be more personal.

Why is it important for the CSUN community to share stories?

Future researchers will make an effort to determine and understand how the community dealt with the unusual circumstances presented by the pandemic and how those circumstances affected daily life. What will make that seem real are personal stories. Storytelling has been and continues to be our dominant form of communication: music, film, theater, all of the arts, rely on storytelling and that’s because stories are relatable. We can all see ourselves in stories. And besides— the act of telling a story can be very therapeutic. I think there are a lot of people in the world that need that right about now.

How have people responded to the project? Have you received any materials that surprised you?

Unfortunately, there’s been a limited response, mostly, I think, because we began this project right about the time the spring semester ended, and summer isn’t really the best time to reach out to students. I’m hopeful we can reach more students, faculty, and staff (alumni and local community members are also welcome to contribute!) now that we’re back in session. We’re working with several members of the faculty.

What will the University Archives do with the donated items once the project is complete?

Well, the project currently has no end-date. Since there’s no way to know when all of this will be over, there’s no way to know when to stop collecting. We plan to keep collecting well past the end of the campus closure because we believe that the recovery period will also be of interest: how did we settle into our new normal? how was the repopulation of campus handled? which local business didn’t survive?

It’s always been our intent to make the CSUN COVID-19 Community Archives available to our users as a digital collection via the Library website. To do that, we need several different units in the Library to coordinate efforts, so we have to sit down with everyone that needs to be involved and work out the details.

Meanwhile, we encourage the CSUN community to contribute reflections and keepsakes—digitally—so we can grow a repository of experiences so future generations can better understand this unusual time. Learn how to participate at Documenting COVID-19 @CSUN.