I’m taking a moment to pause from posting old items and stories from the College archives to talk about living through history, how archivists try to collect and document those experiences, and what you might do yourself during these very unusual days.
I’ve said before that history happens on ordinary days, and most of the time, it happens unexpectedly. Major events can change the world between breakfast and dinner, and historians spend years trying to understand and explain them. And in some cases, history unfolds over days and weeks and can have just as profound an effect on us. I think that’s what we’re going through now. Part of the challenge with living through history is that we don’t know the end of the story because it’s not happened yet. I’ve pointed this out to students in my Western Civ classes when I talk about the outbreak of World War II in 1939. We have the advantage of hindsight, I like to point out. The British didn’t know in the dark days of 1940 how the war was going to turn out, while we know how the story ends. That affects how we see those events, whereas they had to live with the uncertainty. So today, we are living with uncertainty.
Often, people probably think about archivists (and historians) as people who deal with the past. That’s true – part of what I do is to maintain the records of Wofford’s past so that people today can appreciate where we’ve been, and I help people – students, administrators, faculty, alumni – learn more about the past. However, archivists have to look forward as well, for if we don’t collect the records of today, then archivists, historians, and other researchers in the future won’t have any way to understand what we are going through right now. I’ve gotten questions about how Wofford experienced the 1918 influenza epidemic, and I’m trying to research that, but it would be easier if people then had kept better records. (More about that to come.)
So, I have to be aware that we are making history right now, and make sure that it gets documented. That might mean keeping track of emails and other messages that go to campus. It might mean collecting news articles and other types of documents. It might involve asking others to be sure they are keeping good records of what’s going on. It might even mean taking a more intentional act, like keeping a journal.
In addition to the routine things that I do, like keeping announcements and email messages, I decided a few weeks ago, actually at my mom’s suggestion, to start keeping a journal. I try to take a few minutes each evening to write (or in my case, dictate to my iPad) a few memories of the day. I don’t know what I’ll do with it in the end, but it might become part of my own file in the archives so that down the line, some future researcher will be able to see a little of what went on in Spartanburg and at Wofford during the spring of 2020. That’s how historians a century from now will piece together what this experience was like – by reading the words of several people who kept records.
So, what can you do? You can keep a journal as well. Write about what happened today, what your own experience was, how unusual everything seemed. Even mundane thoughts, added to those of others, might be able to paint a picture of life for someone in the future.
Beyond writing, take time to think and recognize what an unusual time this is. I certainly have never worked from home for three weeks before, and I’ve never tried to figure out how to teach a class without seeing my students face to face. You are certainly doing things differently now, so reflect on that. I know that clergy are trying to figure out how to do ministry without seeing their congregations. What’s that like for you?
Another thing to consider is, how will this change us as individuals, communities, and a nation? What’s going to be different in the future because of this experience? Take some time to think, reflect, and maybe write some history of your own.