Write it Down: A Historian’s Plea During COVID-19

By April 1, 2020April 8th, 2020Blog

We are living in an extraordinary time. This feels like an understatement, given that in the space of just a few weeks, our lives have been turned completely upside down by the coronavirus. For many of us, adjusting to the new reality of a global pandemic has been a difficult process. In times of great stress and anxiety, one therapeutic activity is to write down your thoughts and feelings. Keeping a journal can help us better understand our emotions and manage our mental health.

But in such an extraordinary time, journaling also serves another purpose. We have an opportunity to document this historic moment by recording our thoughts, emotions, and even our new daily routines. Historians will be analyzing and writing about this extraordinary event for centuries, trying to imagine and recreate what life was like in a world upended by an invisible enemy. Theyll turn to many sources, from federal and state guidelines to medical studies to economic reports, but for insight into the lives of ordinary people like you and me, theyll rely on what we write down.

As an early American historian, I know the historical value of journals first hand. While studying the American Revolution in graduate school, I spent years reading diaries, letters, and commonplace books (similar to a journal or a scrapbook in which colonists, often women, would jot down assorted notes, observations, inspiring quotes, recipes, poems, medical remedies, half-baked ideas, and whatever else they felt would be useful or important for intellectual growth). These sources offer a unique window into the inner lives of ordinary people, and often reveal how global events were experienced on a personal level.

Of course, the sources that future historians will use to study the 21st century will be vastly different from what I use to understand the 18th century. So much of what we write is on our computers or our phone, recorded via Facebook, Twitter, and text message. But there is no guarantee that this virtual record will be available to historians living 50 years from now—much less 500 years from now. Far better, then, to write it down and to make sure it is preserved for future generations by your local history museum.

To this end, the Los Altos History Museum has begun a new initiative to collect and preserve the history of Santa Clara County during the age of coronavirus. To do this, we are asking for your help and for your voice. We want to hear how you and your loved ones are experiencing this event—how has it disrupted your lives? How are you getting through it? How have everyday routines changed in your household? To help future historians understand this event and to make sure your story isnt left out of the narrative, please consider contributing your journal entry, photos, or other archival materials here. You can submit digitally now, or drop off physical materials when the museum reopens to the public.

By documenting your own experience of this global pandemic, youll be giving an invaluable gift to future generations by revealing how COVID-19 changed our community and how we got through it. As a historian, then, I urge you: stay home, wash your hands, and write it down.

Contributed by Dr. Amy Ellison, Exhibition Curator