On March 13, the day the New-York Historical Society closed its doors to the public, Rebecca Klassen, an associate curator for material culture, was scrolling through Instagram when something caught her eye. A friend from the gym had posted an image to her story of a massive bottle of Purell. At the time, store shelves across the five boroughs were already bereft of disinfectants. The picture, Klassen says, was reminiscent of “some kind of night run in the frantic search for sanitizer.” It was captioned “liquid gold.”
The post prompted Klassen to send two messages. The first was an email to Margaret K. Hofer, the Historical Society’s museum director and vice president, asking whether they ought to start collecting items from New Yorkers related to the coronavirus pandemic. The second was a DM in response to her friend’s story. “Hey, can I have that when you’re done?” she asked. “I want to add it to our museum collection.”
People tend to think of archives as massive troves that are compiled long after an era has ended or someone has died. But when it comes to COVID-19, archivists, curators, and librarians nationwide are assembling the record of how the pandemic is impacting their communities in real time, collecting everything from makeshift masks to journal entries to protest signs. Their mandate is both urgent and sweeping: Gather items from a broad swath of residents that, viewed together, tell the story of a particular region’s collective experience of coronavirus. “A lot can be lost over time,” says Ayshea Khan, the Asian American community archivist at the Austin History Center. “Memories can shift, things can be thrown away. It’s important to archive present moments when they happen, as much as we can, to ensure an accurate representation of our city’s history.”
COVID-19 isn’t just impacting what is being archived, it’s also impacting how. Before the lockdowns, staffers at libraries and history centers would organize drives for donations, attend events to look for discarded physical artifacts, and collaborate with local memory keepers to get the goods. “Normally, with our rapid-response collecting, we are out there on the street,” Hofer says. These days, though, archivists have had to get creative. Many organizations have built online portals for volunteers to submit digital files—audio, photos, poetry, you name it. Some collections are more selective than others, but when the archive being formed is largely digital and donor-directed, there can be reason to hold onto almost anything that falls within the scope of the project. “It’s a comprehensive set of resources,” says Madeline Moya, the media archivist at the Austin History Center. “We don’t know what a researcher will come in looking for at any given time.” Sorting through these submissions will be a huge amount of work, but that’s a problem for a later date. For now, the goal is to collect as quickly and widely as possible.
At the Austin History Center, collecting for what they’re calling the “COVID-19 Files” began on Facebook, where Marina Islas, the AHC’s Latinx community archivist, posed a question: “We are living through a historic moment. How is that affecting your life?” Meanwhile, Khan emailed organizers and groups she had worked with previously to gather their experiences and participated in a virtual town hall addressing anti-Asian racism related to COVID-19 in the area. Moya reached out to a photographer she knew who works with Austin’s homeless population about donating recent works. Audiovisual archivist Afsheen Nomai, who has been active in the r/Austin subreddit for a decade, archived the posts of a user whose daily coronavirus charts had developed a loyal following.
In New York, Klassen has made ample use of Instagram. She’s messaged friends about donating items, like the supersized Purell bottle, but says the app is also a way to pick up on trends even outside the boundaries of her own filter bubble. “Seeing something shared multiple times or visually through pictures elevates its importance and its collection-worthiness,” she says. In the early months of the pandemic, she noticed people posting photos of burgeoning miniature herb gardens and handwritten notes of thanks from local businesses and sought out those images for the collection. Then, when Black Lives Matter protests began in late May, the app became her way to keep track of New York City’s many grassroots organizing efforts and to follow up with participants about donating signs or telling their stories. The New-York Historical Society’s collecting program is among those that are now gathering materials from both the pandemic and the protests. “Some people see pandemic collecting and Black Lives Matter collecting as two separate streams,” Klassen says. “On the one hand they are, but they’re also very much intertwined.”
Not just that, but many issues at the heart of both are central to the work of archiving. Decisions around who gets to be remembered and whose voice should be listened to have been instrumental in perpetuating racism for as long as there have been history books. Done right, community collecting can be an opportunity to redefine what kinds of stories, artifacts, and experiences are being prioritized and preserved.
Scholars of prior pandemics know first-hand that this is imperative. Nancy K. Bristow, the chair of the University of Puget Sound’s history department and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, began her research in the hopes of understanding the experiences of her working-class great-grandparents in Pittsburgh. But finding information about poorer Americans, least of all those who wielded even less social power, was a significant challenge. “Without a substantive and sustained effort to collect the stories and experiences of people from the widest range of communities, we risk silencing those distant from political, economic, and cultural power, the very people whose stories we most need to hear,” she says.
J. Alexander Navarro, the assistant director of the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine, agrees. He’s spent years researching influenza epidemics and often finds the documents at his disposal lacking. “Archives generally collect the materials of more ‘important’ people,” he says. “As a result, we are missing a trove of very rich—if not sad—stories about how everyday people lived through the  pandemic.”
The Austin History Center created its community archive program to fill out these kinds of gaps in its collections, many of which privilege white history. Since 2000, the city has actively sought out nonwhite archivists to build trusting relationships with its communities of color and facilitate the preservation of their stories. In recent years, for example, the center has put on exhibits highlighting Austin’s first Chinese families and photographs from the Villager Newspaper, the city’s longest-running Black community paper. “I got into this work because I believe archives and other forms of memory-keeping can be meaningful spaces for healing during times of trauma,” Khan says. “Especially for people of color there’s something very powerful in the act of being able to share your story in your own words.” Still, this spring and summer have underscored the gaps in the History Center’s services. Looking at the COVID-19 materials collected so far, “there are silences, especially from our different Black, brown, and other communities of color,” she notes. “We have a lot more work to do.”
During a year when people are figuring things out day by day under the best of circumstances, it can be difficult to wrap your head around anything that looks ahead, least of all a project meant to help people in the distant future understand what’s happening in the present. But archivists know that that’s exactly why this has to start now. Eventually this pandemic will end, and these archives will get organized. History centers will create digital exhibits and physical displays. And one day, when historians, kids working on school projects, or anyone who’s curious wants to learn more about what it was like to live in, say, Austin in 2020, they’ll be able to see for themselves. Pictures of the boarded-up bars on Sixth Street, recollections of braving the hospital and the grocery store, signs made to protest outside the Austin Police Department, and, yes, bottles of Purell will all be there to help them write a richer, more complete draft of history.
This story first appeared on wired.com.