University Archives documents the COVID-19 crisis as it unfolds
Years from now, scholars studying Yale’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic will seek firsthand accounts, official records, and other primary sources as they interpret this turbulent period in world and university history.
The University Archives — Yale’s official repository for its records of historical and institutional significance — is working to provide tomorrow’s historians a robust record of today’s unprecedented events, including a trove of perspectives from current undergraduates.
“When the students in the class of 2070 are writing their senior essays on the COVID-19 crisis and its impact on Yale, I want them to have source material from undergraduates who experienced the pandemic as it unfolded,” said Michael Lotstein, the university archivist. “What did they experience? Were they scared or angry or optimistic? It is important to record these perspectives.”
The Yale University Library, which manages the University Archives within its Manuscript and Archives Department, is distributing an online survey to all undergraduates, inviting them to anonymously document their academic and personal experiences. Among its questions, the survey asks students to describe how the pandemic has affected their lives — what most concerns them about the present situation and what aspects of daily campus life they miss most, as well as their thoughts on remote learning. They’re also invited to share a story from their experiences — funny, serious, or otherwise.
“Yale’s history is written in large part by students participating in the university’s academic and social experience,” Lotstein said. “First-hand accounts from present-day Yale students, preserved in the University Archives, will be a vital resource for future students and researchers studying the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education in the United States.”
Already in the archives are the responses to a past survey that documented undergraduates’ reactions to Coeducation Week — an event in November 1968 in which more than 750 women from 22 colleges attended Yale College classes and lived in the residential colleges. The event helped pave the way for coeducation the following fall.
“The students’ responses ranged across the spectrum,” Lotstein said of the Coeducation Week survey. “Many thought the week went really well and were enthusiastic about coeducation. Others, for various reasons, thought it was an awful experience. The survey provides a full picture of the campus’ pulse after a major event.”
Undergraduates often pursue senior theses on Yale-related topics, particularly about historical periods associated with campus upheaval, such as coeducation and the May Day protests in 1970, Lotstein said.
In addition to the survey, the Yale Library is developing a website under the theme “Help Us Make History” to collect photographs, videos, and written work documenting undergraduates’ thoughts and experiences in these trying times.
The website will invite students to share photos from their lives while hunkered down amid the COVID-19 crisis, and reflections on it, Lotstein said. Peer institutions, including Columbia and Johns Hopkins universities, are developing similar projects.
Lotstein is also regularly archiving 21 Yale websites that convey news and information about the pandemic, including YaleNews, Yale Health’s site, and a special COVID-19 page on which all virus-related messages issued by university administration are gathered.
“We’ll have a strong record of all outward-facing communications the university has made to students, faculty, staff, and the public in its response to the crisis,” he said.