CityLab Wants to Hear Your Stories From the Pandemic

June 8, 2020
By: Nancy Sheehan

What has your life been like during this worldwide pandemic? What issues have you faced? How has the shutdown affected you and your family? A group of Worcester State faculty and librarians hope you will share your story for a new digital archive documenting this unprecedented moment in our history.

“Like it or not, this is an event that’s going to change us,” says Tom Conroy, Ph.D., chair of the Urban Studies Department and director of CityLab. “The question is, how much is it going to change us? And will we remember what it was like so that the next time we face something like this, we’ll be able to go back into history for some guidance. This time, we didn’t have a lot of ground-level data to do that.”

Working through CityLab, the research institute of the Urban Studies Department, a coalition of faculty and librarians launched an online digital archive on Monday, June 8, to document the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the people of Central Massachusetts. They want to hear and capture stories of people who made influential decisions, how the pandemic unfolded, and how it is impacting people’s lives. They hope to preserve the stories of a wide range of people affected by the sweeping political, economic, medical, and social upheavals of the COVID-19 virus, so we can learn from the experiences of all.

“One of the things that oral history tries to do is capture the stories of people on the margins who are not normally collected,” Conroy says. “So, the archive will contain stories of those involved in decisions to open or close buildings, as well as those of people who will have to go into the buildings, or make alternative arrangements. They have different lives and different concerns that are important to capture.”

Anyone can add a story to the archive by completing a self-guided online oral history, contributing a video diary, or adding photos at Prompts help people gather their thoughts, and step-by-step procedures assist in navigating the process.

Plans call for WSU’s Translation Center, Urban Action Institute, GIS Lab, and eventually the Latino Education Institute to become involved—helping with outreach, mapping, and translating the oral history collector.

“We’re going to translate the collector into Spanish, which will be done by students in the Translation Center, to collect stories from the Latino community,” Conroy says. “In time we will build a process to translate the Spanish-language stories to English as well.

In addition to the self-guided interview process available online, there is a portal to request that someone reach out to do an interview. “We would then ask our students, who will be specially trained, to go do oral histories with them, probably on Zoom for now,” Conroy says.

“This is probably the most exciting part of it,” he says. “Like any CityLab project, it will not just be about the faculty working interdisciplinarily, but it’s also about faculty working with students from a variety of different fields, interdisciplinarily. They’ll be working with us as mentors on actual real-world research.”

The digital oral-history archive is a two-track initiative, with the second part being more targeted research and creative projects that will span the university’s two schools in an effort to grapple with and understand this big moment in history.

“The group that has now assembled is about 25 academics from 11 departments plus the library,” Conroy says. Phase 1 is launching the oral history collector; Phase 2 will consist of a variety of interdisciplinary research projects and creative initiatives.

“We’re not all going to work on every project, but, as projects take shape, we will lean on and draw from each other when necessary. So health sciences, for example, has got a project it has rolled out with two health science professors, an education professor, and a nursing professor.”

The COVID Digital Archives project will be a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, Conroy says. “These are some of the best academics I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “They’re brilliant and respectful scholars and teachers, but they are also interesting and fun people who get along very well, especially in these big historical moments. It’s just a really great group. We are excited to begin introducing students into the mix with us.”

In addition to Urban Studies and its CityLab and Urban Action Institute, departments involved from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences are Criminal Justice, History and Political Sciences, Psychology, Sociology, Visual and Performing Arts, and World Languages, including the Translation Center. Departments working on the project from the School of Education, Health, and Natural Sciences are Education, Health Sciences, Nursing, and Earth, Environment, and Physics. Also, a librarian from University Archives is contributing to the project.

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