Image of a student on their couch, with their graduation attire on, enjoying a soda and holding their TV remote and snacks.
The Lived Experience: University Archives Collects COVID-19 Responses
by Becky Becker
December 1, 2020  •  4 minute read

While researching the university’s response to the last deadly pandemic to reach America’s shores, the Spanish flu of 1918, university archivist Alesha Shumar found that there were missing pieces in the university’s historical record of the event.

“When we look back at the 1918 flu, we have very little in the university archives documenting the student experience during that time. Equally, the student newspaper was not being produced through the winter and into the spring of 1919. Looking back, we don’t have a good sense of how the students were handling the pandemic or how the Spanish flu affected campus directly,” Shumar said.

The historical gaps and the university’s shift to online courses in March 2020 with the onset of COVID-19 in Knoxville inspired Shumar to create a record of students’ responses to the current pandemic.

Shumar, assistant archivist Becky Becker, and library colleagues created a webpage to accept submissions from all students, faculty, and staff that would document their personal experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The website, Chronicling COVID-19: The UT Student and Campus Response to the Coronavirus, launched the first week of April 2020.

Chronicling COVID: Graduation Day

Participants were invited to respond to a brief questionnaire or express themselves through poems, journal entries, videos, music, essays, works of art, or photos. As of December 2020, more than 200 questionnaire submissions and creative works have been accepted and will become a permanent part of the university archives.

Students, faculty, and staff who submitted creative works between April and December 2020 have contributed unique items such as diary entries, essays, poetry, and photographs. The photographs’ subjects include:

  • The campus and Knoxville area self-isolation period that began in March and ended in June
  • UT seniors who celebrated graduation from home via online ceremonies in May
  • Community service in response to the pandemic, such as distributing PPE to medical professionals at UT Medical Center

“That is why UT Libraries’ efforts to document the campus experience through Chronicling COVID-19 is so important,” Shumar said. “These donations will give future students and historians a window into the lived experience of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways the UT community came together and supported each other through this difficult time.”

In addition to archiving the UT community’s personal responses to the pandemic, the Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives uses web archiving tools to capture the university’s official coronavirus response website. The archived web files supplement what has been recorded in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Chronicling COVID-19 will accept new or additional follow-up submissions during Spring 2021. An updated questionnaire will launch in December 2020. If you would like to find more information about the project or submit your own experiences, please visit the Chronicling COVID page on the UT Libraries website.

Additionally, please visit the Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives Spanish Flu Research Guide to learn more about how the flu of 1918 impacted the university and the local area, and  to explore related materials.