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What was it like to live through the pandemic, grandpa? University archives seek items that capture COVID-19 history

Cambridge resident Emily Ottinger submitted several paintings to Harvard University's COVID-19 Community Archiving Project, including this one, which she created based on photos of masked people around Cambridge and Boston.Emily Ottinger

In late March, with the world entering a coronavirus lockdown and his friends panicking, Emerson College senior Jack Lavitz worried about what would happen next — and its impact on his generation.

“What will happen in the coming months is definitely uncertain as we can see, but what happens in our futures is directly correlated to this,” Lavitz wrote in a reflection he submitted to Emerson’s COVID-19 archive project in late March. “For now, all we can do is really hope for the best, but for us, is that good enough?”

Lavitz had just had his time at Emerson’s Los Angeles campus curtailed by COVID-19. He suddenly had to choose between waiting out the storm there and finding an apartment, or going back home to New Jersey for the last months of his college career.


He described what it was like making that decision in his essay, which is one of the many artifacts of history that archivists at universities around the region are collecting from students, faculty, and staff to document these terrible times.

Someday they could help answer the question: What was it like to live through the pandemic?

“We want to capture voices, and I think this can be empowering for students who contribute,” said Christian Dupont, an associate librarian for Special Collections at Boston College. “They can see that their life matters and somebody else will care about what they went through.”

The submissions include art, essays, photographs, original songs — anything that depicts this moment in history from the perspectives of college communities.

Some contributions have been less than dramatic, including notices from school officials and student groups about COVID-19′s effect on campus events and classes. But some are far more personal.

De Nichols, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, submitted a digital drawing to Harvard University’s COVID-19 Community Archiving Project that she created to honor a friend who died due to complications from the virus. The piece has also been printed out and displayed on one of the windows of Harvard’s Science Center as part of the Windows at Harvard public art project.


Harvard Graduate School of Design Loeb Fellow De Nichols submitted this digital drawing to Harvard University's COVID-19 Community Archiving Project, which she created after learning a friend had died due to complications from COVID-19.De Nichols

“The most moving for me are videos of students talking to each other or just directly to the camera as they try to make some sense of the situation or say goodbye to each other,”said Dan Santamaria, director of Digital Collections and Archives at Tufts University. “Many of the videos really emphasize how quickly everything happened in March.”

Some students have used photography as a way to capture the sudden shift in their lives. Archives have received photographs of students’ tiny apartments or cluttered bedrooms, which suddenly served as their study and work spaces, as well as images of the lockdown landscape — the lines outside supermarkets and empty Boston streets — the students navigated.

Harvard University graduate student Sam Naylor submitted this photo of his quarantine location, a small Cambridge apartment he shares with his partner, to Harvard's COVID-19 Community Archiving Project. Sam Naylor

Emilie Hardman, head of Distinctive Collections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s libraries, said students also have submitted music playlists they made after finding out their semester had been cut short.

“I can imagine that there are students who were packing up their senior year dorms, realizing that they were unlikely to have a traditional graduation, hurriedly ending their college careers, and listening to songs that may for the rest of their lives evoke that unique experience,” Hardman said.


One student at Tufts submitted a song called “COVID Funk,” which parodies the Bruno Mars hit “Uptown Funk.” At Berklee College of Music, archivists have received original songs from students like Madison Simpson, who graduated from Berklee this spring with a degree in professional music.

Simpson wrote a folk-style vocal composition about how hard it has been since COVID-19 cut the last few months of her college life short, especially since she can no longer see her friends in person. She wrote, in part:

Walking round in circles like a lost dog far from home

Missing all these things that I’ve forgotten how to know

Crowded in this house but all alone

Archivists hope these submissions will help historians, policymakers, and future generations understand just how trying this pandemic was for young people.

A cannon at Tufts University was painted with the words "COVID 2020, Class of 2020." The cannon is painted frequently, often with messages from students. Ana Sophia Acosta, a member of the Class of 2020 at Tufts, submitted this photo to the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives COVID-19 Documentation project.Ana Sophia Acosta

“Not only will their contributions have enduring historical value, their [submissions] will also provide insight on how we can better support students as a university,” said Julia Howington, director of the Moakley Archive and Institute at Suffolk University.

While most university archives have started their own projects, Suffolk is taking part in The Year of the Plague, a crowd-sourced archive that is accepting submissions related to COVID-19 from around the world.

Northeastern University also is contributing works to The Year of the Plague, which has received more than 5,600 items as of June 23. Victoria Cain, director of Graduate Studies at Northeastern’s Department of History, said submissions could help their creators find a sense of purpose during this pandemic.


“I think it’s very easy to feel unmoored and untethered, and there’s something grounding about explaining and articulating where you are and what is important to you at that moment,” Cain said.

Dupont said submissions to BC’s archives will be used in future courses at the college. He hopes students from universities across the city will preserve their pandemic experiences through archival projects.

“Get in touch with an organization you’re affiliated with and ask them for their advice on how to share your story and archive it,” Dupont said. “If you have a story to share, somebody wants it.”

The archivists said they would welcome more submissions as the pandemic continues and will even accept them after it’s all over.

Lavitz, who is in the process of moving back to Los Angeles after finishing the semester in New Jersey, said he is glad he submitted his story to Emerson’s archives.

“Sharing my experience [with the archives] let me talk out what had happened and why it happened,” Lavitz said. “Deciding what to do once Emerson told us we had to leave was such a trying experience and something I’ll never forget.”

Caroline Enos can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.