CORONAVIRUS

Corridor archives seeking public reactions to pandemic for virtual time capsules

Grant Smith, director of facilities at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, has been snapping p
Grant Smith, director of facilities at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, has been snapping photographs showing COVID-19 protocol signs on Czech Village businesses, like this one at Soko Outfitters. The museum, visible in the background, is creative a virtual time capsule of the pandemic, and invites the public to send thoughts, memories and photos to help chronicle this moment in history. (Grant Smith)
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When the library doors are open at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in southwest Cedar Rapids, library director Dave Muhlena said: “It’s really fun hearing people talking about family things being passed down generation to generation.”

Now that the doors are closed to help stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, he still wants to hear those stories.

The museum is putting out the call for people to help create a virtual time capsule by submitting thoughts, memories, photographs and videos on their COVID-19 experiences.

Guidelines have been posted on the museum’s website, ncsml.org/covid-19-stories

“It’s a great intergenerational family conversation that could occur, where mature adults can share their life experiences concerning other health scares, with younger generations,” said Muhlena, 54, of Cedar Rapids. He has been with the museum for 22 years and works with its reference library that contains more than 10,000 books, catalogs, videos, CDs and other materials documenting the Czech and Slovak experience in America.

“We’re a memory institution. We look to the past to explain where we are today. Things don’t happen in a vacuum. There’s any number of sequences of events that get us to where we are here today. The coronavirus isn’t the only virus to affect us as a nation,” he said.

“Smallpox has been documented since antiquity, and was brought here to the Americas by explorers and colonists. That’s part of the talk about the migration of people and diseases,” he said, pointing to the Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” published in 1997. “It’s about how travel and war sometimes spread disease.

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“More recently, we’ve had these viral epidemics, too, like the Spanish flu in 1918, the polio epidemic in the 1950s, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic starting in the ’80s. Those are all viral. You also have these bacterial infections like cholera and tuberculosis.

“All of this is a fact of life,” he said. “It’s the world we live in, but it’s only been more recently that we have dealt with it on a more survival or governmental way.

“Before there was the advent of medications, there were other methods by controlling this or treating it. With tuberculosis, for example, they had sanitariums where people would stay to recover — those were a kind of isolation wards, too.

“Then in the 1950s during the polio scare, (the reaction) was similar to what we have today. They closed swimming pools and public water fountains as a way to prevent the transmission of the disease before there was a vaccine for it.”

He said that historical context can provide “a good way for parents to talk to their kids (about) that role scientists and public health professionals play in understanding these diseases, and coming up with ways to slow their transmission — like what we’re doing with social distancing — and then coming up with a cure (and) developing vaccines.”

Parents can point out to their children that polio has been mostly eradicated through vaccines, and even chickenpox now has a vaccine.

“Those are things that are putting this all in perspective,” he said.

He suggests initiating family conversations over internet platforms, asking grandparents, great-aunts and -uncles and parents to share with children their experiences and family stories about personal memories of epidemics like polio or the health checks their immigrant ancestors were given at Ellis Island, some of whom may have been sent to a quarantine area. And also the home remedies out of grandma’s medicine cabinet or garden, which she used to cure or lessen the symptoms of various ailments.

“Those are the kinds of stories that would be neat to pass down and also to share. So that’s where we come in,” Muhlena said. “Those are the kind of stories I hope could come out of something like this” virtual time capsule project.

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And because it’s a time capsule that will live online and not be buried in a container to be opened later, he stressed the following guidelines.

“It’s an archive or the 21st century version of a time capsule,” he said. “One thing we want to make clear is that we don’t want soiled masks coming our way.

“Basically what we’ll be doing is collecting these stories. It could be an electronic submission of people’s personal stories after talking amongst themselves as a family. Maybe taking pictures of themselves wearing masks or creating masks. A lot of people are doing that in their homes, which is fun to see. If you look around the community, there’s a lot of creative masks we’re seeing that have different fabric or patterns. It’s a way to individualize this yourself and control the situation a bit on your terms.”

He added that Grant Smith, the museum’s director of facilities, has been taking photos of the signs area businesses are posting on doors or windows to let the public know if they’re completely closed or open for curbside service. Videos also are welcome.

The project will not only benefit people experiencing the pandemic firsthand, but also future generations who will read these anecdotes.

“It provides an in-the-moment perspective on how people are perceiving this and how they’re dealing with it, so that future generations will gain some insight,” he said. “This (pandemic) will be resolved at some point or dealt with in a way. This (provides) a snapshot of how people were thinking in the moment. I think that’s important.”

UI Library Archives

The University of Iowa Library in Iowa City also is seeking for its archives firsthand accounts of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The library is partnering with the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio on the project.

Iowans, especially those in Iowa City, are invited to submit journal entries, emails, photographs, videos, audio recordings, art and other documentation showing how the university and community have been affected by the pandemic. The materials will be collected and published to a website.

“While it’s hard to imagine that we’re a part of history, we indeed are,” David McCartney, UI archivist, said in the project’s online announcement.

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He added that while it’s hard to anticipate what future researchers will want to learn about current events, there is never enough information about the experience of individuals during previous situations such as this.

“For example, we know too little about our university community during the influenza epidemic of 1918,” McCartney said. “We have reports from newspapers, but little else.”

Anecdotes could include shifting to remote instruction and learning, studying and working from home, the impact of closing residence halls and other campus services, and the ways family and friends are staying in touch during this time of social distancing and self-quarantine.

For more information and complete instructions, go to Lib.uiowa.edu/studio/covid-19-stories/

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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