Preserving Our COVID-19 Stories
“The influenza played havoc with everything run to schedule in our village and vicinity. Churches, Schools, Movies, even Poolrooms were promptly closed in the beginning of the dreaded disease, even before it had really reached us, and by the time the Flu caught us in its whirlwind everything was running wide open again, and nobody closed it. Our people got their share of trouble too.”
That same month, in The Banner, a church in Atwood, Michigan was thankful that it had been spared. But it noted sadly, “our neighbor church, Ellsworth, had a time when about half its people were sick with it, and two were taken away. Our prayer is that we may be spared from it, and the plague removed from us all.”
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The Spanish Flu first appeared in the spring of 1918 and then returned in waves in the fall and winter of 1918-1919. Local outbreaks of diseases and regional epidemics were familiar parts of life, much more so than today. Diphtheria, typhus, cholera, tuberculosis, influenza, and more regularly plagued communities in the early twentieth century, as they had for hundreds and thousands of years before that.
A global pandemic perhaps would have been less of a shock than today. Even so, the Spanish Flu stood out for killing 55,000 people in Canada, 650,000 in the US, and 50 million or more around the world.
In the past century, public health programs, vaccinations, antibiotics, and high-tech medical treatments have greatly reduced the impact of epidemic diseases like these. They seem rare, almost impossible things to us as a result. Perhaps that is why COVID-19 is so shocking for some, and so hard to believe is real for others.
We can read stories like these from Edgerton and Atwood because they’ve been preserved. It’s not just stories in magazines like The Banner. If you dig into the immigrant letters collections of Heritage Hall, you find stories of disease and ailments, deaths, separation, homesickness, and isolation. And life went on, too, however, disrupted by disease. The letters contain stories about marriages, births, jobs, weather, children and grandchildren, church life, school, and more.
People in the U.S. and Canada, then as now, wanted to stay connected with distant family and friends. They didn’t have email, Facebook, texts, and Instagram in the Dutch immigrant “kolonies” in Michigan, Iowa, and later across North America in the 1800s. But immigrants sent letters home to the Netherlands and got letters back. Social media today is instant. These letters took months. But people got them. And in archives like Heritage Hall, some have been preserved.
Heritage Hall is the archive for the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Calvin Theological Seminary, and Calvin University. We are collecting and preserving COVID-19 stories from people and communities affiliated with those institutions. That means members of the church and clergy and staff who work for congregations, the CRCNA, and its ministries. And it means students, alumni, staff, and faculty of the university and seminary.
In doing this, we’re joining libraries, archives, universities, and community institutions across the US and Canada. We’re following “industry standards” in the business of archiving and record keeping.
Some of our stories are tragic. We may know someone who has died or been severely ill. Or lost a job or a business. Some of our stories are about being drained and trying to be resilient. Some of our experiences have been silly. I’ve been delighted to see on Facebook and Instagram how people are finding ways to keep themselves or their friends or children from getting “cabin fever.”
When I submit my stories to the COVID-19 archive, I’ll probably talk about learning to teach online, and worrying about my students, when Calvin University suspended classes; trying to figure out what to watch on TV with no live sports; worrying a spring allergy symptom is actually a COVID-19 symptom; wondering, fearing, what work will look like at Calvin University when the students return in September, and if they have to leave again; trying to decide what I think about “going to church” on Zoom; worrying about my father and step-mother, isolated in their apartment, in their 80s.
What are your stories?
We invite you to share written stories, photos, videos, audio recordings, and other files that document how you are experiencing the pandemic. Our first goal is to collect these stories. Eventually, we will make this material public through the Heritage Hall website and Hekman Library at Calvin University.
Future generations of family, students, and historians will be interested in your personal or community’s experiences of the pandemic.
If you want to contribute your experiences but don’t know where to start, feel free to use one of the following questions as a prompt:
- How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you, your family, or your community?
- Have there been changes in your day-to-day life that surprised you?
- How has COVID-19 affected going to school, your work, and your participation in civic organizations, your religious community, sports, etc.?
- Have you experienced a significant life event since this began? How did social distancing, wearing a mask, etc., affect your experience?
- Were you inspired to express your experience in a creative way?
To submit your story, type it up, record it on audio or video, find photographs, and submit material here (click the link):
William Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.
The cover image for this post is the main floor of the Hekman Library at Calvin University. It was taken in the early afternoon. Normally the main floor would be full of people, studying, often in groups, checking out books, or having something to drink at Peet’s Coffee.