Archiving the Pandemic: UTA Library project preserves community experiences with COVID-19

Students walk past the Central Library on Aug. 1, 2019, on the Central Library mall. 

When COVID-19 precautions became widespread, journalism senior Anthony Ariyibi finally got something he’d always wanted: a generous helping of personal space.

Before the pandemic, people were too close to him for too long, whether at school, the DMV or the bank. Although he obviously wasn’t wishing for a pandemic to turn the world upside down, the one positive aspect he never expected was the absolvement of crowds.

Little changes to the world may seem mundane, but perspectives like these are the types of submissions the UTA Libraries archives want to gather from the community for its “Archiving the Pandemic” project, which began in early May. Since then, the project and number of submissions have grown substantially.

The project is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of all things related to the UTA community’s response to COVID-19, in any way they’d like to share.

From paintings to writing to interpretive dance videos, everything is appreciated, said Michael Barera, university and labor archivist.

There are essentially four parts to the project.

Part One: Web Archiving

The first is web archiving, in which Barera captures and preserves web pages as they exist each morning.

“It began as a single page on COVID-19 response, and as the pandemic is going on, it's expanded to a whole suite of pages, like a subsite within the University website,” he said.

These pages update often, especially the ones listing the confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the UTA community. Each is saved for posterity in a format that allows visitors to see the site as it was when it was posted.

Part Two: Saving emails

“Part two is very low tech. It is capturing all of the official emails from the Office of the Provost and the Office of the President about the pandemic,” Barera said.

The emails are printed and stored in old-school vertical files and saved as digital PDF files.

Part Three: Community submissions

Part three is the largest part, Barera said, and the reason many people have heard about the project.

Barera and Priscilla Escobedo, UTA Special Collections archivist, created a form for the community to submit files, which can include anything.

“We intentionally left it very open ended,” Barera said. “We didn't want to bottle anybody up. We wanted this to be about how people in the UTA community have experienced and responded to the pandemic.”

There are no rules for submissions, but if you’re looking for a guide, photographs, videos, student artwork, diaries and journals are a good start.

There has been a diverse group of submissions so far, Barera said. This includes pictures of the Metroplex devoid of people and a video from an acting class where participants acted out fictionalized versions of themselves during the pandemic.

So far, the project has accumulated 65 individual digital files and three physical files that have been promised and will be delivered after the pandemic.

Ariyibi completed a similar project in March during a class with journalism professor Geoffrey Campbell.

The assignment was to write a series of observations and thoughts about life in quarantine and include pictures, videos or interviews to go with the journals. Students were instructed to focus and dive deep into even the subtlest changes around them.

From photos of empty grocery store shelves to dreading interactions at the laundromat, Campbell said he read his students’ journals and was impressed with the way many of them processed their own experiences.

“It was a good reminder to me that my experience is not everyone else's experience, and I think that's important for me to keep in mind,” he said.

Campbell said it was a good assignment to help students be in the moment and take notice of small details that can add to a story.

“I was hoping that they would pay attention to the fundamental ways in which things were different,” Campbell said. “In some ways, it was a mindfulness exercise.”

That mindfulness was something Ariyibi appreciated about the project, he said, because it helped him keep track of the days once they started blending together in the early part of quarantine.

His approach to the pandemic journal project was to write down a trait every day that was not normal in his life, like the first time he saw the “6-feet apart” stickers on the floor in Walmart.

“The journal made me more observant, like I paid more attention to the little things that I wasn't in tune to,” Ariyibi said.

Part Four: Oral history

And finally, part four of the archive project has to do with their oral history program, which is overseen by digital publishing librarian Yumi Ohira.

“My role in this project is to coordinate and oversee the interview component of this project,” Ohira said. “After the interview is conducted, I make those interviews available online.”

These interviews can be with anyone with an interesting perspective to tell, and Ohira and her coworkers guide participants through the whole process. Three interviews have already been conducted and transcribed, with another still in progress, she said.

Although they’ve been accepting submissions for the archive project since March, Escobedo said that the end of the project might never come as long as people are still submitting.

A major goal for the team is to create a smaller, standalone website for the pandemic archive to host all the digital materials and files they’ve gathered, similar to their Texas Disability History Collection website.

This won’t happen for a while though because their small team is still working from home and must focus on other essential projects that are necessary to keep the library running. For now they’re staying focused on gathering materials and perspectives.

The library’s Archiving the Pandemic project is a good idea, Ariyibi said, because when future historians look back on this time, they’ll be able to see what happened from the perspectives of the people affected by it. The COVID-19 pandemic will be more clearly documented than any other disaster to date.

“We might not see the advantages of it right now, but we could see it in the future, you know, when people forget about what happened in 2020,” Ariyibi said. “Archives will be a good source of information of what exactly happened, what people remember happened.”


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