Carol Sowl had just moved to Ashland with her husband when their lives were turned upside down by COVID-19.
Before moving, Sowl, 66, and her husband had lived on Madeline Island for about 40 years, 20 of which Sowl spent as the schoolhouse teacher there. During her time as a teacher, she used the Madeline Island Museum to help her students learn about area history.
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So when she heard that the Wisconsin Historical Society was asking people to keep journals during the pandemic, she signed up right away, knowing the importance of having local records available for future generations.
Christian Overland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker director at the Wisconsin Historical Society, said when everything shut down nearly a year ago, the historical society was trying to come up with ideas to keep people engaged with them. That’s when one of their archivists proposed the idea of a journaling project.
Overland said journaling projects have always been a part of the historical society’s history. Their first director visited Camp Randall in Madison in the 1860s and distributed journals to Civil War soldiers; more than 400 were returned. The organization continued journaling projects throughout its history. After the 1918 influenza pandemic, they realized that while they had many valuable historical items, the voices of the people were missing.
“We don’t have anything in the archives back then about what was going on with everyday life,” Overland said.
The Wisconsin Historical Society wasn’t alone in recognizing this gap. Shana Aue, an archive assistant for the University of Minnesota Duluth Archives and Special Collections of the Kathryn A. Martin Library, said they were also missing anecdotes from everyday people.
The UMD Archives also started a COVID-19 Community Archive. They asked for anything that could be submitted digitally, such as signs, social media posts, music recordings, spoken-word videos and photographs.
Aue said they launched the project two weeks after the statewide shutdown and didn’t know what to expect.
“I would say it has exceeded my hopes because so far we’ve received over 800 items,” she said.
Items UMD received range from photos of workspaces, to art projects by students, to advertisements by businesses, and even images of recently finished house projects.
The UMD Archives received a grant for a project called "Stories of Wisdom." For the project, they hired 10 interviewers to ask 110 residents pandemic-focused questions.
Many of UMD’s submissions have been posted online for public viewing. The Wisconsin Historical Society is in the process of scanning the journals they’ve received while they wait for even more to come in. Overland said the organization received around 130 journals. More than 2,300 people worldwide signed up to submit journals.
Sowl plans to complete her journal March 17, the day she and her husband expect to receive their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Both organizations are still accepting journals and items. Visit libguides.d.umn.edu/covid-19 to submit materials to the UMD Archives. Visit wisconsinhistory.org/JournalProject to sign up for the Wisconsin Historical Society project.
UMD's COVID-19 submissions can be found at libguides.d.umn.edu/umedia_covid.