Sunday, May 22, 2022

This organization is looking to capture local history during the coronavirus pandemic

The diary of Martha Barksdale, a William & Mary student, noted events during the 1918 flu pandemic. (WYDaily/WM Digital Archives)
The diary of Martha Barksdale, a William & Mary student, noted events during the 1918 flu pandemic. (WYDaily/WM Digital Archives)

People are living through a historic time, a pandemic that continues to wreak havoc to the nation and the world.

And one local group wants to capture that history as it’s happening.

“If we don’t collect the stories now, it’s just going to disappear,” said Jay Gaidmore, president of the Williamsburg Historic Records Association.

The association, founded in 1984, works to collect and preserve local history from the colonial era to the modern day. This is done through preservation of letters, documents and other artifacts throughout the years in conjunction with the Special Collections Research Center at William & Mary libraries. 

The organization is now asking for residents to donate and record history as it’s happening.

“These are crazy times right now and we want a record of the thoughts and feelings of everyday people,” Gaidmore said. “We’ll always know how the president of William & Mary reacted because that’s being saved, but it’s the everyday people we want to capture.”

The organization is looking for items from journal entries to signs posted on business storefronts. While these items might not seem significant now, in a few decades they can be part of a collection that captures the human experience during a pandemic. 

Something like a store sign with dates crossed out or notices of closures can become important when teaching future generations about this time period. Gaidmore said most people might not see the importance of something as simple as a letter or a sign and so the organization wants to collect them before they’re thrown away. 

“If you think down the road, it will give us some solace in knowing how people reacted, these everyday people who are struggling everyday,” he said. “It’s good for people to know this isn’t new, we’ve been through this before and hopefully we’ll come out stronger.”

Gaidmore said many historians have been referencing the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 in terms of historical collection. During that time, many people kept diaries of sickness and happenings in their community which have helped people now better understand the nature of pandemics.

In Williamsburg, Gaidmore said some of the better records are from local newspapers and diaries, such as the one of Martha Barksdale from 1918, which is accessible through William & Mary’s digital archive.

Barksdale, who was also one the first female student at William & Mary, kept a detailed diary of her feelings and community activities during the 1918 flu pandemic. 

“I arrived [at William & Mary] on Sept. 19 [1918], and came up in an automobile…After several days we got straight and had classes one day before we were quarantined for Spanish influenza. This was a good thing for us. None of the girls had it so we used our time in getting well acquainted. We had met none of the boys and the quarantine served to make them want to meet us,” Barksdale wrote in a diary entry from November 1918.

“When you read the diary of someone in 1918, you realize that what’s happening in their community is also happening now,” he said. “And that could inform decisions in the present day, just as our records might do for future generations.”

But in the 21st century, collecting history becomes a little bit more complicated. While the organization is looking for as many paper resources as possible, it is also working to keep track of digital records.

“We really have to think about saving the digital stuff because paper is a lot more resilient,” he said. “If we don’t save the digital now, it won’t be around. People forget about it or systems lose the information.”

As many places are updating their websites, Gaidmore said the organization has been using tools such as the WayBack Machine, which archives specific websites and updates. For example, when William & Mary updates its webpage, WARH is keeping a record of each update.

But Gaidmore said social media is a bit more difficult to track. 

Historians with the group have to work with locals and content creators to make sure items such as tweets and Facebook posts are saved.

Once all that information is collected, Gaidmore, who is also the director of Special Collections at William & Mary, said it goes into a digital repository that is backed up on multiple servers and eventually will provide an online resource for historians. The physical items are then kept with the Special Collections at William & Mary, which provides a space where conditions are created to preserve historic documents. 

“It’s about collecting history now as it’s being created,” he said. “A lot of this stuff is ephemeral, so we have to think early about saving it.”

Digital materials, such as photos and posts, can be donated to WHRA through the organization’s website. Physical materials, which can be sent now or later, can be mailed to WHRA at P.O. Box 1708 Williamsburg, VA 23187.

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Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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