Recording U-M’s Pandemic History

A message on the Michigan Theater marquee reads “Not all heroes are on screen - Thanks essential workers!”

Launched in April 2020, the Bentley Historical Library’s COVID-19 collection offers a poignant glimpse of the pandemic’s impact on University of Michigan students, faculty and staff. It includes 265 digital items from more than 150 donors. Archivists are still collecting submissions, with an eye now on how the pandemic continues to touch people’s lives.

The project marked the first time that the Bentley used an online Google form to accept submissions digitally through crowdsourcing, with materials coming in from all across campus.

Many of the items reflect how faculty members and students had to quickly pivot after campus largely shut down in mid-March of 2020. With her students scattered across the county, Terri Sarris, senior lecturer in the Department of Film, TV and Media, asked them to shift gears and make their final video projects about their experiences during the pandemic.

Some students focused on feeling restless and what it was like to be back home with their families. They recorded footage of tributes to essential workers and people talking about their pandemic experiences. One student took video of the starkly empty streets of New York City.

“[The artifacts and photos] really are a time capsule of what people were going through at that time,” Sarris said. The project used a different kind of archival process. Normally, archivists collect groups of documents from one creator, often after significant time passes, rather than cataloging individual items as an event is unfolding.

Most items in the collection are from the early weeks of the pandemic. One professor donated her diary entries from that period. Someone who was studying seismic noise near Michigan Stadium submitted a graph with that data.

“As soon as lockdown started, the level of volume in town at the stadium just dropped,” said Caitlin Moriarty, project archivist at the Bentley and the coordinator of the COVID-19 collection project. “We don’t normally think about the sound around us. I do remember it was just so quiet everywhere.”

Six university archivists are involved in the project. As they continue to accept donations, they’re working on how to package and present the collection, which is entirely digital, in a comprehensive, accessible way.

Ultimately, the crowdsourced collection will make up just a portion of the university’s archived pandemic materials. The Bentley regularly acquires various records from schools, colleges and departments across U-M, and some of those materials also include items related to COVID-19. The Bentley expects to continue to receive pandemic-related materials through direct connections like these over the coming years.