Photo of the book stacks at Northeastern's Ronald Williams Library

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Though the world is still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northeastern Illinois University’s library is creating a digital archive that will seek to reflect how the pandemic impacted Northeastern students’ lives and how students have responded to this unprecedented time. Submissions for the new archive, “Sheltering in Place: NEIU Archives COVID-19 Documentation Project,” are only being taken digitally, and only currently enrolled students and recent graduates from the Class of 2020 are able to submit materials.

“The library figures that we will receive the official University response to COVID-19 later down the line from various administrative files and departmental files that come our way,” University Archivist Hanna Ahn said. “I think this archive will show a creative and personalized response to this historic situation. We don’t have a lot of collections like this in the University Archives so we wanted something that really focused on the student experience. This seems like it would provide really valuable information in the future for researchers on how the students of Northeastern Illinois University handled, experienced and lived through this pandemic.”

Associate Dean of Libraries Lisa Wallis and Dean of Libraries Steven Harris came to the idea separately, but both liked the idea of creating this archive as a way to keep student workers  further engaged in the library during the pandemic, which has forced the University to keep workers and students off the campus. Wallis saw the idea on a LibGuide provided by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL).

“We still want to support our student workers because they are a huge part of the library,” Wallis said. “The idea of creating a COVID-19 archive was one of ACRL’s ideas to keep student workers engaged and it kind of just stood out to me not only because it’s important to have this historical record, but also because it would offer another way for students to connect with the University and the library as well as offer an opportunity for creative expression as a way to curb possible feelings of isolation. I thought this might be a way to help capture what they’re going through and understand this time a bit from their perspective, to further remind them they’re not alone and we want to support them.”

Harris started thinking about the idea of this archive after learning about the Alumni Association’s COVID-19 Alumni Leaders project.

“Part of the mission of the University Archives is to be a record of the history of the University,” Harris said. “We should be recording and preserving these materials because people will come to us years later to say, ‘What’s the documentation about this history? What do you have about Northeastern’s response to this?’”

The current plan for this archive collection is to have students submit materials via a webform. The materials will then be reviewed and curated over time. The library staff does not anticipate this collection being available to the public for some time because they do not know how many entries or types of materials they will receive and will need time to curate it. Additionally, the library wants to let some time pass so that the collection can be looked at from a historical lens.

“There’s going to be a year’s worth of activities, even from now, that are worth adding to the collection,” Harris said. “Even once the pandemic is over, we’ll want to show how it changed us.”

Ahn, Wallis and Harris are all eager to see what students submit. Though Harris thinks many people may submit written work, such as poetry or journal entries, Ahn said she encourages students to submit photos and videos of their socially distanced graduation celebrations and images of works of art they’ve created like paintings, or even photos of them making homemade masks if that’s something they’re doing.

“I think the seniors, the graduates of Spring 2020, would really have a lot to add,” Ahn said. “How students celebrated graduation—video of a socially distanced parade of automobiles celebrating the quarantined students’ graduation would be a really great contribution to our project. I’m not looking for screenshots of Zoom classes, but we’re looking for journal entries that detail what the learning online experience has been like.”

Other types of entries the University Archives would be interested in are voice memos or recordings students have made during the pandemic and daily schedules of students as they shelter-in-place. Ahn also said she’d like to hear from Northeastern’s student organizations and have contributions from them about how the stay-at-home order impacted their regular activities.

“No one experience is going to be the same for everyone,” Ahn said. “I’m really looking forward to what we receive. I think it’s going to be a really interesting, really informative collection.”