The word “history” often brings to mind events in the past, stories of our grandparents or great grandparents or strangers in faraway places that lived centuries ago. Dusty books. Ancient artifacts.
But the COVID pandemic, even the parts that have become mundane, the masks and hand sanitizer, toilet paper shortages and remote school, are history in the making.
For sure the things said by politicians and policymakers will go down in history. The contributions of front-line workers, tirelessly taking care of infected patients, ought to and will be remembered. But the day-to-day lives of “regular” people are important too, and documenting their experiences is part of the Historical Society of Forest Park’s “Living History: COVID-19” program, which aims to collect resident experiences through an online survey and submissions of photos and videos.
Alexis Ellers, Historical Society executive director, spoke to the Review about the project.
“It can be hard to think of things in our current life as history, even for the Historical Society,” Ellers said. “But those casual photos and ads from 100 years ago that we love so much now were current to someone. Had they not been saved we wouldn’t have them now.”
During the 1918 flu pandemic, photography was still rare, Ellers said, so there aren’t many photos that document what the experience was like for people at the time.
“A century later we are on the opposite end of the spectrum; it may feel like we have endless documentation of this experience, but it is important to be intentional with our preservation of it so it doesn’t get lost as time goes on,” said Ellers.
The idea for the project originated during board meetings, when members were talking about the 1918 flu, looking at stories from that time that seemed relevant today. Seeing the Chicago History Museum’s collection of living histories inspired the group to do the same for the Forest Park community.
“We wanted to give people in Forest Park the opportunity to participate from their homes in a way that was easily accessible,” Ellers said. “We decided to have the option for either a video interview or a questionnaire.”
Collecting a variety of voices is important, so a children’s questionnaire was created specifically focused on younger respondents.
“[Children’s] experiences are important too and are often overlooked,” Ellers said. “I hope it also helps them to understand the significance of living through this time period and gives them some time to express their honest feelings about the experience.”
Newspaper accounts of what’s happening are a valuable way to look back at something from the future. But they don’t typically include the nitty gritty details of people living through something like a pandemic.
“These in-depth first-person accounts tell a story in an unedited, more personal way,” said Ellers. “Unfortunately, difficult times happen in all of our lives; knowing that people before you have gone through hard times as well can be reassuring. As we have been looking back at the 1918 Flu Pandemic this year, people in the future may be looking at the COVID-19 pandemic to help them cope.”
For now, the Historical Society isn’t collecting artifacts, such as masks, but Ellers encourages people to hang on to them so when it’s safe to do so, physical items will be added to the collection.
For now, digital photos can be emailed following a link on the survey page at forestparkhistory.org/living-history-covid-19.html.