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The Importance of Documenting Moments in Times Like This

April 7, 2020

Years from now, we will be able to take a look back and see how lives were changed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Much like other historical events, being able to teach future generations about this is important so that history doesn’t repeat itself. With that being said, we took a moment to interview Katie Nash, University Archivist and Head of UW Archives, about her experiences and why it is important that others document theirs as well.

JARI XIONG: I wanted to start off with hearing a little from you about how COVID-19 has affected your lifestyle. What changes were you able to make and what challenges do you face?

KATIE NASH: I’m writing this on day 10 #wfh and slowly getting used to being at home every day, keyword being “slowly.” There’s something nice about the routine of taking the bus every day to work, seeing people in person, meeting new people, visiting never before seen spaces across campus, solving problems with other humans in physical spaces, interacting with students on a regular basis, and then being able to *mostly* leave everything at work because it will be there the next day, and the day after that, etc. Any and all parts of that routine are now on pause for an indefinite amount of time and it often feels unsettling. But I’m someone who makes an effort to face challenges with positive energy and will try to make the best of situations, and figure out how to adapt. The biggest change I’ve made is to truly practice being kind to myself each day. Yes, I’ve made other changes like setting up a work space in my kitchen area, giving myself permission to not work within a strict 9-5 day, take breaks and get outside, and develop new ways to stay connected with people. There’s definitely been a shift in the work that I’m focusing on, as a lot of larger projects have been put on hold. It’s been challenging to make the most of those shifts, but having a great team and supervisor has made all the difference in the world. A lot of the other challenges staring me in the face are completely manageable and I see lots of opportunities ahead!

XIONG: What is something you consider to still be normal for you?

NASH: I’m a fairly social person and regularly stay connected with friends, family, and colleagues. During this time I’ve continued to stay connected with people and that helps the world feel “normal” for me. Also, I enjoy staying active so being able to exercise and get outside to go on walks or bike rides provides some sense of normalcy. Staying in touch and connected with the Archives staff and our student workers on a daily basis is a tremendous help and something I look forward to every day.

XIONG: We can see how the pandemic is being documented formally through news channels and governmental orders. What we might not see are the journals and personal details of those who live through this pandemic. Why do you think it’s important that the common citizen personally document this?

NASH: The COVID-19 pandemic is now a global collective experience. As humans, we all experience disasters, traumas, changes, and a range of emotions, etc. in very different ways. Unlike a natural disaster (for example) that wreaks havoc on a community in a very short period of time, this pandemic is anyone’s worst nightmare of a very slow train wreck and none of us quite know if the train is going to completely derail. This pandemic is something we are all experiencing on very personal and professional levels and our lives are intimately affected in ways we never imagined. Capturing these moments, emotions, experiences, situations and much more is crucial to feeding the human experience bank that will later provide a different and more personal side to any scientific research (or other research) that will come out of this pandemic era for generations to come. If the personal and collective experience is not documented, how will we ever know how the human race responded to this global catastrophe? How will we learn how people coped and changed, and what worked and what didn’t? How will we know that people from all different walks of life experienced this together and understand how they navigated through uncertain times, supported each other, and found a way to alter and change societal/cultural norms? Ensuring the documentation and collection of personal experiences, as well as the recording of memories and other expressive outlets from everyone helps keep us authentic and inclusive. Additionally, it helps us improve and grow in ways we never conceived, helps future generations analyze mistakes in order to make vast changes, and hopefully helps us remember the deep influence the community has on the human race.

XIONG: What would you say has been the most shocking documentation of this pandemic that you’ve come across?

NASH: Through most of this I’ve been listening to NPR and other news broadcasts, and not consulting a lot of visual news outlets. Since I’m such a visual learner, seeing such stark visual content during this pandemic has been really challenging for me emotionally and intellectually–hence why I limit visual intake. Daily, I’ve been getting outside for walks and it’s shocking to see streets empty of cars, businesses closed with a million different signs on their doors, people actively practicing social distancing/avoidance behavior, and overall feeling like I’m living in an alternative world trying to find the secret door that leads me back to the normal I once knew and lived. However, I’m also shocked to see so many individuals, couples, friends, and families out and about who appear to genuinely be enjoying one another’s company–a site that warms my heart and I hope will continue into our collective new normal.

XIONG: For the final question, how has social media made documentation of this pandemic easier or more complicated?

NASH: In short, social media makes documentation of this pandemic easy and complicated all at the same time. Social media is such a powerful outlet to express ideas and opinions; share anything and everything immediately; connect people, businesses, interests, differences, experiences, topics/subjects, etc.; cause information to go viral; and in some unexpected ways can help us simplify this messy world we live in. However, with all the text, images, videos, memes, etc. being shared it becomes overwhelming very quickly for those of us on the other side who want to try and document something specific. Information overload quickly becomes an understatement. In University Archives, we are exploring ways to capture social media related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media allows for some ease in documenting the pandemic, as you can capture specific accounts/sites, hashtags, and other trends in a centralized way. Also, we want to make sure we can preserve content for the long term, and adhere to best practices related to access, use, privacy, permissions, consent, copyright, and much more. While we still have a lot to figure out in what feels like a short period of time, in the end we’ll do the best we can. Luckily, people in the archives profession are supportive, transparent, and willing to share knowledge which is a perfect trifecta because a lot of places have figured out this stuff already!

XIONG: A big thank you to Katie Nash for joining us. Katie Nash is a UW Archivist and the Head of UW Archives at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.