Your experience during the COVID-19 pandemic can be part of Rhode Island’s history

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Whether it’s by taking a photograph or writing in a journal, there’s something about the human experience that makes us want to document history. 

When the pandemic hit and our lives started to change, we, as humans, felt the need to document those changes. In March of 2020, as shelves were bare of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, photos surfaced on social media of the phenomenon. It became one of the earliest depictions of the pandemic as we navigated uncharted waters. 

The traditional role of the archivist and historian seems to be documenting history by looking back at past events, but this time, archivists at the Providence Public Library leapt into action with the intent to document history as it was happening. 

We are the storytellers of our time. Only we can share what it was like with future generations. With the role of social media and digital archives, we can do that in a way that those experiencing the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 did not do.

When asked about what they did have in the archives from 1918, Providence Public Library Curator Kate Wells said, “We didn’t have anything that talked about the day-to-day experience of normal Rhode Islanders, and so that really became the focus I think of our project team.

Wells said when the world shut down in March of 2020, she and Rhode Island Historical Society Archivist Becca Bender got to work, from home, of course. They pored through what they were gathering as “signs of the time” and decided to create a digital database of collective memories from the pandemic, as those memories were being made. They created the Rhode Island COVID-19 Archive.

“The people who are living through the history are going to be submitting it as opposed to this sort of, ‘we are the archivists, we are the curators, we make the decision of what becomes part of the story of COVID,” Bender said.

12News read through the archive and found fascinating accounts of heartache and hope in the form of mixed media, photographs of physical artwork on city streets, artistic photographs, drawings, children’s artwork, children’s diary entries, and video diary entries. 

One project featured in the archive was a collection of photographs taken by the Cranston Public Library.  

“It looks like people’s faces are emerging from the darkness, so that was the creative inspiration for the project,” Cranston Public Library Assistant Director Julie Holden said, as she pointed to a few of the black and white photographs still on display in the central library taken by Sarah Bouvier. Bouvier is the communication manager for Cranston Public Library.  

“I didn’t really pose them in any way,” she said, adding that the subjects for her photographs were in large part patrons of the library. Her young daughter was one of the subjects on display. 

After they were photographed, the participants had to give one way they found something positive during a dark time. They were later interviewed about their response. Those voice recordings were also submitted, along with the photos, to the archive. 

One caption of a submitted photo on the Rhode Island COVID-19 Archive’s website said, “Getting a chance to do a little bird watching in my own tiny, yet thriving garden, and tap dancing with friends on Zoom. It’s a thing!”

Second-grade teachers from the Henry Barnard School submitted their students’ diary entries, with parental permission, in Spring of 2020.

“We’d get pictures of the whole family all lined up at their computers working together,” teacher Sarah Hess told 12News in a Zoom interview with her former colleague.

“In many ways, we had this view in their lives that we never had so they talked about things they’d never talk about in school,” Hess’s colleague, Michelle Nonis, added.

Students in Bryant University Professor Martha Kuhlman’s freshman writing workshop shared their unique perspectives on graduating high school amidst a pandemic in the spring before starting college. 

“There were a lot of moments in the essays where they said, ‘I didn’t know this was the last day I would be doing these normal things and then everything would be different,’” Professor Kuhlman said.

COVID-19 also disproportionally impacted the Latino communities in Rhode Island, and this project hired a community member through a grant to reach out to this population to document their experiences.

This included murals and art providing hope and gratitude to healthcare workers.

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