A historian's guide to creating a lasting record of COVID-19.
Archiving the Present
A Guide to Creating a Record of COVID-19
Dr. Ananya Chakravarti
Associate Professor of History
COVID-19: A World Historical Event
• Historians study change over time. Thus, our discipline is ill-equipped to make judgments about
the present because we cannot know how things will change.
• Historians are thus generally loathe to judge the significance of an event as it unfolds, since what
seems important now may have little impact in the long run, while trivial events can have vast
effects over time.
• Nonetheless, it is clear that we are witnessing an event of world historical magnitude given its
scale, both geographically and in terms of wide-ranging social impact.
• Histories of disease have value not just for historians, but for epidemiologists and other medical
researchers, public health professionals and policy-makers.
• In that spirit, let us use what we have learned about history to document as best we can COVID-
19 for the benefit of future historians of this event.
Ten pages of obituaries
in L’eco di Bergamo.
David Carretta, Tweet
Post, March 14, 2020
Visualizing the Scale of COVID-19
World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 60,
19 March 2020.
An Introduction to Archives
Primary Sources and Archives
• Primary sources are historical
documents or artefacts that have
survived from the past and that provide
first-hand evidence of past events. They
are coeval with the event under
• Examples: letters, diaries and other
personal papers, government and
other institutional documents,
newspapers, maps, audio-visual
recordings including photographs,
sound recordings and video, digital
artefacts, material artefacts
(including architecture and art
• An archive is a repository of such
historical documents. Pages from Times of India, 1918
Primary Source: The
Spanish Flu Through
“I could read only today your card telling me that you, Kiki and others had
fallen ill. I was glad to learn, however, that by the grace of God you are all
progressing. The body of the person who has chosen to follow the dharma of
service must become as strong as steel as a result of his holy work. Our
ancestors could build such tough bodies in the past. But today we are
reduced to a state of miserable weakness and are easily infected by noxious
germs moving about in the air. There is one and only one really effective
way by which we can save ourselves from them even in our present broken
state of health. That way is the way of self-restraint or of imposing a limit on
our acts. The doctors say, and they are right, that in influenza our body is
safest from any risk to life if we attend to two things. Even after we feel that
we have recovered, we must continue to take complete rest in bed and have
only an easily digestible liquid food. So early as on the third day after the
fever has subsided many persons resume their work and their usual diet. The
result is a relapse and quite often a fatal relapse. I request you all, therefore,
to keep to your beds for some days still. And I wish you kept me informed
about the health of you all. I am myself confined to bed still. It appears I
shall have to keep to it for many days more, but it can be said that I am
getting better. The doctors have forbidden me even to dictate letters, but
how could I have the heart to desist from writing to you?”
Letter of M. K. Gandhi to Gangabehn, quoted in his diary on 10th November
1918, by his personal secretary. Mahadev Haribhai Desai, Day-to-day with
Gandhi: Secretary’s Diary, Vol. 1 (Sarva Seva Sandh Prakashan, 1968): 259.
Gandhi, standing on a
weighing scale at Birla
House, Bombay, June 1945
Silences in the Archives
• No archive is ever complete.
• Archives reflect the records of those with the social, political and economic resources to
produce and preserve documents and conversely, to suppress those inconvenient to them.
Thus, historical archives often under-represent those who were socially vulnerable and
• Historians know this and have developed techniques to address it.
• Any archive of COVID-19 will reflect the hierarchies of our societies and will ironically under-
represent those most vulnerable to its ravages– migrant and precarious laborers, including
workers in the gig economy; non-literate peoples; people without reliable access to the
internet; the infirm and elderly; those incarcerated in prisons or immigration detention
centers; the homeless etc.
• Still, the more we preserve, from as wide a set of points-of-view as possible, the more
information historians of the future will have to make sense of our time.
Primary Source: Silencing the Spanish Flu in
“With this statement, the Board of Directors explicitly intended to
oppose the rumors that arose and spread from the first hint around
a larger and more intense manifestation of the morbid epidemic
form, which had appeared to us since last spring. Since then, there
has been talk of a terrible, mysterious disease, unknown in its
cause and invisible in its effects ... Now it is a question for us, as it
has been in other countries, of arbitrary, absurd voices, the result
of incompetence and of fantastic overexcitement.”
Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Italian Prime Minister, circular of
October 20, 1918 to prefects, communicating the order voted
upon that day by the Superior Council of Health, again affirming
that the terrible epidemic was nothing but the flu. Quoted in
Eugenia Tognotti, La “Spagnola” in Italia. Storia dell’influenza che
fece temere la fine del mondo (1918-1919), 2nd edition (Milan:
FrancoAngeli, 2015): 146. Translated by Ananya Chakravarti.
Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, c.
1915-1920, Bain News Services
The Fragility of Archives
• Archives can be destroyed deliberately or
• Archives are only as durable as the
materials in which the sources were made.
• 19th century records, for example, may
be more vulnerable to decay than 17th
century ones, despite being of more
recent provenance, because the
quality of the paper in the earlier
period was more robust.
• Do not assume that digital materials
are automatically more secure. Much
digital content has already been
effectively lost in the unfathomably
vast troves of digital information we
have created in the last three decades.
Felipe Milanez, “Incêndio no Museu Nacional do Brasil”
Archiving in the Digital Age
• Our society’s historical footprint has changed.
• Over half of the world’s population is online. Any archive of the present has to include born-digital
• The digital archives of the future are the databases of the present.
• Companies routinely profit off the data we generate without compensating us and states
around the world, often with the collusion of such companies (e.g. Facebook) use this data
for purposes of surveillance.
• When we amass digital records, even for the purposes of archiving, we must be aware that
they are databases vulnerable to both sorts of exploitation. Consider anonymizing sources to
protect information if necessary.
• Still, democratizing access to reliable information is important both for the future and now
when misinformation, often deliberately spread for political gain or private profit, can
exacerbate a pandemic with catastrophic consequences.
Primary Source: Profiting from the Spanish Flu
In the late 1890s, the M.J. Breitenbach Company gained prominence by
promising to market this dietary supplement or iron and manganese only
to pharmacists, not the general public. Yet, the company was soon
painting advertising signs. A report by the American Medical Association
in 1917 condemning the Company’s false claims stated:
It has been pointed out many times in the pages of THE JOURNAL that
many nostrums are advertised first to physicians, and that after
physicians have served as the unpaid agents of the manufacturers in
introducing the preparations, their exploitation is them commonly
continued by means of advertisements in the public press. This plan has
been followed successfully in so many cases that we have now come to
look on it as a regular course. It is in keeping with this rule that we find
Pepto-Mangan now advertised in the public press, the physicians having
served the manufacturer’s purpose.
“Pepto-Mangan,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Dec. 29,
1917. Propaganda for Reform in Proprietary Medicines, Vol. 2 (Chicago:
Press of American Medical Association, 1922): 387.
Lynchburg News, November 5,
Documenting With Purpose
• In documenting what you observe, think about yourself as a participant in and witness to these
events on two levels:
• Personal: documenting your personal experience is valuable, not only for archival purposes
but as a technique for coping in times of crisis.
• Social: Each of us are part of different communities— families, immediate and extended;
friend circles and generational peer groups; collegial groups and professional associations;
local religious communities and the wider ecumene; volunteer groups; neighborhood
associations; online communities). As members of these communities, we are in a position to
witness and document how each community experiences and responds to COVID-19.
• Furthermore, depending on the scope of the communities in which we participate, be mindful
that we are witness to the unfolding of a social process at different scales: local, regional, national
• The techniques we might employ to document this will depend on both the scale of what we are
documenting and how we interact with the communities in which we participate.
Technique 1: Journaling
• For historians, the personal diary is one of our most
treasured genres as a primary source that gives us a
particularly intimate way of tracking change over
• Journaling involves writing regularly without
concern for external form or particular content, but
rather allowing thoughts, feelings, memories and
observations to play out on the page as they come
• A good diarist will bring curiosity rather than
judgment to the task.
• Journaling, at a time like this, is also beneficial as a
coping mechanism, offering us a private place to
express our reactions in a way that we can revisit
and reflect upon, so that we can better identify our
needs and strengths. It also provides a sense of
agency, as we transform ourselves from passive
witnesses into active observers.
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with the
Spanish Flu (1919)
Technique 2: Curating and Cataloguing
• We are bombarded with content on COVID-19— from emails and press conferences, to memes
and tweetstorms, a deluge of texts is being produced, particularly in digital form.
• The best collections are focused in content, allowing historians to view change over time. Thus,
prioritize a few key sources that will allow you to make sense of this at various scales.
• Collections are only as useful as the catalogues by which we can make sense of their contents.
Thus, catalogue your collections in detail. Consider including:
• An overview of the contents of the collection you build, including dates and location where
material was collected, material types, number of items, significant thematic foci and items
of particular interest and/or rarity.
• For each item, a detailed record of the type of material (photograph, diary, sound recording
etc.), provenance information (date, location, author), any potential copyright information,
and current storage conditions.
• Additional notes on condition of items (e.g. damage to physical materials).
Thinking at Scale: Global
We generally have a difficult time
visualizing or making sense of global
connectivity from our particular
locations. Even as national borders are
closed, the world is self-evidently knit
tightly enough together to make the
COVID-19 pandemic possible. Still,
documenting this for any one person is
impossible. Instead choose an
institution or community of global
reach that you participate in to follow
closely, e.g. an online fanfiction
community, an international volunteer
group or non-profit that you support, a
religious ecumene etc. Preserve
content generated by that community
that seems of particular significance-
take screenshots or printouts of
emails, download memes, preserve
physical pamphlets circulated by the
Paul Thompson, “To Prevent Influenza!,” Illustrated Current News (New
Haven, CT, 1918). A masked Red Cross nurse is pictured in this poster.
Thinking at Scale: National
While official national documents will likely be
preserved by government institutions, we can still
think about how we personally experience COVID-
19 as members of nations and document
accordingly. If you found yourself in a foreign
country during this time, how did your embassy
communicate with you? If you are a member of a
national professional association or union, how did
that organization respond to the crisis? How was
voting in the Democratic Party’s primary elections in
your state affected by COVID-19? Think about your
own entry-point into the national body politic in
figuring out how you want to focus your
US Government poster to prevent spread of
the Spanish Flu, 1918
Thinking at Scale: Local
As newspapers have become
increasingly monopolistic markets,
many local newspapers have collapsed,
even as national papers like New York
Times and Washington Post have
grown. As a result, not only has the
production of local news dwindled, but
their futures as safe archival
repositories have become more
doubtful. If you have a local
newspaper, particularly in a vernacular
language you can read, follow or
subscribe to that and preserve articles
related to COVID-19.
Gazeta de Noticias, October 15, 1918. The headline
paraphrases a famous phrase by the Brazilian physician Miguel
Pereira in a speech given in October 1916 on the ills of rural
Brazil: “Brazil is an immense hospital.”
Thinking at Scale: Generational
One of the tragedies of COVID-19 is
the particular vulnerability of the
elderly and the possibility that we
will lose generational memory at a
catastrophic pace. Even as we
practice social isolation, consider
collecting oral histories from older
relatives, neighbors and
community members by recording
conversations with them, whether
in person or online. Always receive
their permission to do so first and
explain why you are doing so. Ask
them about their memories of
earlier public health crises or what
they heard from their parents and
grandparents about such crises.
Living Stories! “Spot #42- 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic,” Baylor
Institute for Oral History, June 21, 2011.
Louie Mayberry, 1987 interview:
"When we moved to San Antonio I started to school. I hadn't
gone to school but a few days, they had a—a flu epidemic in San
Antonio and they turned the schools out. And we stayed out for
quite a while. And they was trying to teach me how to work.
They let me shine shoes at the I&GN [International-Great
Northern Railroad] station in those days; it's Missouri Pacific
[Railroad] now. And then school started again, and it went on for
a couple of weeks, and they turned out again. We didn't get
much schooling before Christmas."
A Note on Oral Histories
• Oral histories are memories of events that have already occurred elicited from a first-hand
witness or participant of that event.
• Oral histories provide important evidence of past events, especially when documentary evidence
of the event has not survived or was, deliberately or unintentionally, never produced.
• If we use oral histories as primary sources not of the time in which the event was remembered
but to reconstruct the events remembered, we must take into account:
• The frailties of memory
• The fact that what we remember is colored by the present circumstances in which we are
called to remember something. This is particularly true of socially taboo topics such as sexual
• Thus, we must carefully record when and how the oral histories were recorded, by whom and
under what conditions, since this information is vital to historians in analyzing such records.
• If you transcribe instead of recording the interview, include notes to convey the emotions of the