Ben Parker/Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Cornell University Archives, housed within the Carl A. Kroch Library within Olin Library, is partnering with The Ithaca History Center to document the pandemic.

April 1, 2020

Cornell Archives, History Center to Chronicle Ithaca’s Pandemic Experience

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As the nation plunges into uncharted waters, the Cornell University Archives and The History Center in Tompkins County have partnered to document the impact of the historic crisis on Cornell and local communities.

“We’re asking people to unburden themselves, to share with us what are they doing, what are they seeing, write their stories, send us pictures, how are they feeling,” said Donna Eschenbrenner, director of archives at The History Center. “We’re collecting it all.”

The History Center is focusing on Tompkins County, while Cornell Archives is collecting stories from the University, including its campuses across the globe.

The project is gathering information through email submissions, social media groups, local listservs, a Qualtrics survey, web crawlers and collaborations with faculty, including in AMST 2001: The First American University, where students can choose to submit materials for the archive as their final project.

Wesley Kang ’22, an intern at The History Center, developed the survey from his Ithaca apartment while classes have been canceled.

“This is clearly such a critical event in both national and global history,” Kang said. “It’s important to keep the perspective of how people are reacting in real time.”

Evan Earle ’02, M.S. ’14, a fourth-generation Cornellian who serves as the University’s archivist, aims to “capture a little about just the day-to-day of how life has changed.”

He also hopes to gather the “behind-the-scenes” information of the University administrators’ decision-making process during the crisis.

“We may have a really nice picture of what it takes for a large research institution to handle something like this,” he said.

According to Earle, the documentation process can also be “cathartic” for individuals.

“It’s beneficial in two ways. It might help the person get through the difficult situation by journaling about it or talking about it,” Earle said. “But then if we can preserve that for the future, then we have that record … capturing the experience of what people are living in as it happens.”

The project is compiling written responses, meeting minutes, voice recordings and even memes. Some of the data will be stored electronically, while others will be printed and stored as an archival collection.

“We’re casting a very wide net. It’s often difficult for archivists to understand, when you’re collecting in the now, what can be important in the future,” Earle said.

Earle added that it’s “critical” to gather as many “of [those] primary sources as possible,” as the unique stories of individuals affected could be lost with time.

Eschenbrenner echoed Earle’s words, stressing that future generations would benefit from the archive.

“It’s important on so many levels, the humane, the scholarly, the scientific, the medical, the political,” Eschenbrenner said. “We need to know where we’ve been to make our path growing forward.”