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Institutions strive to capture COVID-19 history through eyes of everyday people

As the country grapples with a pandemic that is radically reshaping every aspect of public and private life, institutions across Canada are striving to capture the historic shift through the eyes of everyday people.

As the country grapples with a pandemic that is radically reshaping every aspect of public and private life, institutions across Canada are striving to capture the historic shift through the eyes of everyday people.

Universities, public archives and other organizations are collecting records of daily life during COVID-19, soliciting submissions from residents while the public health emergency unfurls rather than years after it's ended. 

From photos of empty grocery store shelves to lyrics of songs written in self-isolation, these documents and stories will offer future generations an intimate glimpse into a pivotal time in modern Canadian history, ideally without the filter of hindsight, the organizations say.

But those living through the pandemic now can also draw comfort and insights from seeing how others experience this period of collective uncertainty, they say.

"By doing this really forces us to remember that when you're in the middle of the book, you don't know how it ends...when you're in a country that's undergoing this, you don't know what the end game is or when it's coming," said Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada.

"And that's one of the most important contextual issues that everybody has to think about right now, including when things are very tough and they feel quite endless — that history teaches us that we have been down this path before, it's been a terrible frightening one at points, but we got to where we are."

The organization, which has previously compiled firsthand accounts from war veterans and newcomers to Canada, is launching a new national program called "Canada During COVID-19 - A Living Archive."

It will collect a variety of materials from the pandemic — including videos, GIFs, writings and artwork — in an effort to chronicle a wide range of experiences, the organization said. People will also be invited to contribute on social media.

While the organization is looking at the impact of COVID-19 across Canada, others are taking a narrower focus.

The public archives and records office of Prince Edward Island is gathering documents from residents in the province, while Brock University in southwestern Ontario is collecting from those in the Niagara Region.

Toronto's Ryerson University, meanwhile, is delving into the school's experience exclusively, accepting submissions from students, staff and others in its community.

Examining the daily lives of regular people gives a deeper understanding of what a society is like at a given moment than simply looking at important political figures, which historically were only men, said Jill MacMicken-Wilson, a provincial archivist in P.E.I.

For example, the recent movement that saw people putting teddy bears in their windows for children to see during the pandemic is indicative of our values, she said.

"You're looking at something that is saying that people across the globe value their children's experiences, they are concerned about their well-being and how this is going to have an impact on them," she said.

"If you compare that back and you think of the horrors that Charles Dickens described in his novels about children... there really wasn't a childhood. You could look at the differences, that tells you how society has changed in 150 years and how much we value things like childhood."

People may not be taking film photos or sending each other letters as much as they were during wartime or other historic periods, but that doesn't mean there aren't equally valuable digital records, MacMicken-Wilson said. 

Emails, online journals and screenshots of social media posts can all reveal the same details of what people are doing, when they got up, and how they're organizing their day working from home instead of in an office, she said.

"I think we get really hung up on how we do things is different today, but we're still people and we still do the same things. We eat, we work, we sleep, we do things for fun. You know, people are people," she said.

While some organizations plan to sift through and analyze materials down the line, at Brock University, documents are being posted online as they're submitted.

More than 200 digital records have been displayed as of this week, said David Sharron, head of archives and special collections with the university's library.

At first, people mostly sent in photos of bare shelves and closed parks, but there have been more personal submissions of late, including a song written by a nine-year-old girl, he said.

"It's a very personal history that we're starting to see. So it is somewhat different than something that filters in later," in the years and decades after a historic event, Sharron said.

Still, some people aren't in the habit of writing down their thoughts, so the university has come up with a series of questions to help them chronicle their experience of COVID-19, he said.

The questions touch on the impact on home and work, on how they perceive the country's leaders are handling the crisis, and a number of other topics, Sharron said, adding people are encouraged to respond multiple times as the pandemic plays out.

"We're trying to pull it out of people and just make it as easy as possible to think about these things and write it down," he said.

"We all are feeling very different things and experiencing things in different ways, but if it's not recorded, it's not likely it'll ever end up in an archive and made available for future generations."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on April 19, 2020.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

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