Libraries solicit a “People’s History” of the pandemic

  • Sunderland Public Library Staff Photo/Domenic Poli

For the Recorder
Published: 4/23/2020 9:32:05 AM

Although libraries across the country have had to close their doors to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, that doesn’t mean that all library services have been suspended. Far from it. Libraries have ramped up their digital collections of e-books and e-audiobooks, as well as video streaming services. There are myriad online programs for all age groups, ranging from readings and demos by popular children’s book authors and illustrators, to virtual tours of museums, aquariums, national parks and zoos, to classes, podcasts and other educational opportunities, to arts and crafts and cooking lessons, to mindfulness and stress-reduction resources and much, much more. The breadth of offerings, assembled so quickly, is quite remarkable.

Of course, we recognize that not all library patrons have computers or access to Internet service to make use of these offerings. Many libraries are reaching out by telephone to their older patrons and others in this situation to check in on them and offer assistance.

A number of libraries in the area are seizing this moment to solicit additions to their local history collections. The Forbes Library in Northampton, the Tilton Library in Deerfield and our own library here in Sunderland are among those seeking to record and archive a “People’s History of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Contributors to this history are asked to describe what daily life is like for them during this period of quarantine, including those working at essential services. Sample questions and prompts are provided, but these are only suggestions. Submissions of photos, artwork, or even digital video or audio files are also welcome. 

What makes this a people’s history is that the events are not recorded by professional historians, folklorists, or archivists. You are the historian. This sort of project is a natural fit for a public library — history recorded by the public.

At Forbes Library, Dylan Gaffney, who is their information services associate for local history and special collections, teamed up with Reference Librarian Heather Diaz to solicit descriptions of people’s daily lives during the pandemic. They were inspired by a similar effort at the Framingham History Center to record in real-time how the pandemic and the resulting quarantine are affecting people’s lives. Gaffney noted that “Forbes Library has a rich Local History collection and it seemed like an obvious thing to record and collect people’s stories in their own voices as events were unfolding.” He added that “a public library is an ideal repository for collecting and eventually sharing these accounts, as we have the capacity to make these records available to the public in a free and unrestricted way, more so than many archives or historical societies can. We also have the public’s trust and have cultivated a longstanding personal connection with our community, which matters a lot when soliciting often very personal information.”

Candace Bradbury-Carlin, director of Deerfield’s Tilton Library, was eager to jump on board. “What made me decide to have the Tilton Library join this effort is my belief that writing down one’s thoughts and feelings — especially in a time of crisis — is a part of the healing process, both for the writer and for those who read these accounts. Journaling is a common therapeutic practice that enables you to move your feelings out of isolation, similar to releasing a deep breath. Also, these records of day-to-day personal experiences can remind us that we are more similar than we think, and that, despite the quarantine, we are not alone.” And she adds, “After all, libraries are all about stories.”

We would especially like to hear about the texture of people’s lives during this time, no matter how mundane these details may seem to be. This will give a much fuller picture of life during this pandemic than the graphs and charts and often scary accounts of people suffering portrayed in the mainstream media. Whether you are a doctor or nurse on the front lines, a store clerk or truck driver or sanitation worker putting in long hours, or a parent staying home with your kids trying to cope with this unprecedented situation, we want to hear from you. How has this pandemic/quarantine affected your daily lives? How are you managing stress and anxiety? What causes you the most concern? What gives you hope? We want to hear all of it. Nothing is uninteresting.

At the Sunderland Public Library, we hope to incorporate whatever submissions we receive into our local history collection as well and perhaps coordinate this with other participating libraries. To protect people’s privacy, which is always an important concern of public libraries, we provide an option for people who wish to remain anonymous. We also offer the opportunity for people to connect with others who may have similar experiences or have expressed similar concerns.  

Websites on which you can record these stories include:, and 

Libraries in Williamsburg and in Leverett are also in the process of considering how to collect stories from patrons and submissions from school children in some fashion. In Leverett, the library is partnering with Leverett Elementary School and asking all students to email the library director their artwork, poetry and stories. The library director has written letters to them and included postage-paid envelopes so they can send their submissions back to the library through the mail (or via email, if they choose). Every child who responds will be entered in a drawing for a box of books and will receive a personal response from the library director.

As libraries collect these personal stories from people across the region, we fully expect that they will reveal the extent to which we are all in this together. Indeed, collecting such stories seems to me to be just the right role for a public library, which in many places occupies the center, the very heart, of the community that it serves. Libraries are more than sources of information — we are part of the social glue that binds people together, even, and perhaps especially, in times of crisis. Our doors may be closed right now, but our hearts are open and we are still here to serve you in whatever way we can.

Katherine Hand is the director of the Sunderland Public Library.

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