Documenting a pandemic in Denver

Denver-area archivists chronicling this time

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When six-year-old Noah Alpert decided to express his feelings about his life during the COVID-19 pandemic in a song, he never could have imagined that song would someday end up in the collection of a major historical museum.

Yet that’s just where it is now, thanks to a new effort underway at History Colorado to document the pandemic’s impact on Colorado that is finding material worth saving in the most unexpected places.

The Denver historical society, which operates the History Colorado Center downtown, launched its COVID-19 collecting project in late March, when it posted a message on its website asking Colorado residents to share stories about the experiences with COVID-19 with it. The post explained that the museum was giving residents a variety of means to do so ranging from answering a series of survey questions online to creating a journal and then submitting it to the museum.

Although the collection process (like the crisis itself) is still ongoing, senior curator Alisa DiGiacomo said several themes and commonalities have already begun to emerge from the impressive amount of material that has already been collected.

“It’s clear the commonalities as far as the people that have responded,” she said. “That feeling of isolation, which for the people who haven’t necessarily been directly affected is also mixed with gratitude as far as tragedy, but still who are in isolation and getting used to the new normal. We’ve also had interesting submissions from children, which it’s fascinating to see that perspective and to, for example, know that students miss school and that they now have a different perspective of missing what they took for granted and being in the classroom.”

That said, there are still some perspectives that DiGiacomo feels still need to be brought into the growing collection.

“Part of what we know is missing is what I would call the more tragic stories whether it’s somebody that’s been directly affected by COVID or lost a family member or had financial hardship,” said DiGiacomo. “Those are some of the stories that we know will be coming but we know that it takes a little time.”

Closed signs collected

History Colorado, however, will be just one of several institutions where future generations will be able to find documents and other artifacts from this current crisis.

At the Jefferson County Archives, archivist Ronda Frasier said her efforts have focused on county government communications related to the crisis.

“I have just been basically gathering and saving all of the communications that have been put out by the county commissioners and Jeffco Public Health,” said Frasier. “That includes both everything that has gone to the public as well as everything that has gone to employees.”

Just across the street from the History Colorado Center on North Broadway, the Denver Public Library has also been working to document the local impact of COVID-19, albeit by with a slightly different approach.

After learning that History Colorado planned to focus on collecting journals and other oral histories, the library’s Western Histories and Genealogy Department decided it would work to document the impact on businesses by having staff go out in their own neighborhoods to take pictures of closed signs at local businesses from throughout the city. They also collected several take-out menus from restaurants that provide a different look at the impact on the restaurant industry.

“It was pretty ephemeral because most of those signs are now gone and those businesses are now open,” said Jamie Seemiller, the department’s Acquisitions Archivist. “So, it was just trying to document how that short time period affected neighborhoods and businesses in those neighborhoods.”

At the Golden History Museum and Park in Golden, curator Mark Dodge put out a call to the Golden community asking them to consider and submit suggestions for how that museum should document the pandemic. Some of the suggestions have included N-95 masks, a copy of Jefferson County’s Public Health Orders and even hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

Dodge said in a post on the museum’s website that it has already added a homemade face mask, along with dozens of photos of downtown Golden taken on March 18, to its collection.

Colorado State University’s libraries, meanwhile, are focusing their collection efforts on documenting the impact of the pandemic on the school’s Fort Collins campus.

“We are interested in your stories about the shift to remote instruction and learning, studying and working from home, working at off-campus jobs, the impact of closing residence halls and other campus services, and the ways you and your friends and family are staying in touch during the pandemic,” reads a post on the library’s website.

In addition to collecting photos and signs to document COVID-19, Seemiller said the library has also aimed to document the historic Black Lives Matter protests that recently took place around the Colorado State Capitol just blocks away from the museum.

Protests also being documented

One morning, a photographer visited the area around the Capitol before protesting had resumed to document the pro-Black-Lives-Matter graffiti that now covered the capitol and several surrounding buildings. Another staff member, who lives in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, later collected around 30 protest signs that will be digitized and made available online. The library also has some videos of the protesting, although Seemiller said staff will blur out the faces of those captured on the video to protect their privacy.

Documenting the protests has presented particular challenges, Seemiller said.

“When we documented the Women’s Marches over the last few years, we had a table set up down there and we would tell people to donate their stuff and have them fill out our forms,” said Seemiller. “But this one moved so quickly that he kind of just found abandoned signs so we don’t always know the complete story behind each sign like we did with the Women’s March.”

The library’s archiving activities have also been further complicated by COVID-19 itself, which has kept staff away from their office’s since March.

Someday, researchers might examine the various COVID-19 collections being amassed across the state alongside institutions collections of material from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which tend to be more limited. Seemiller said the library’s collection includes records of who died as well as obituaries.

History Colorado’s material, mostly consists of newspapers from the pandemic that are contained in its extensive newspaper archive. However, the museum also recently had the opportunity to acquire the trunk of a woman who died in that pandemic.

DiGiacomo, however, expects the museum’s COVID-19 collection to be much richer than its Spanish Flu collection for one key reason.

“The biggest difference is that we do not have material as rich as far as the first-hand experience as we have the opportunity to collect right now,” she said.

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