By Published: June 3, 2020

Editor’s note: To collect these assets and complete this project, students followed strict health and safety COVID-19 guidelines that included social distancing. For audio or video interviews, students conducted them virtually by phone or online video conferencing platform.

During COVID-19 isolation, many rituals that mark our important achievements and transitions have been canceled. Events like commencements, weddings and proms are being celebrated remotely with video conferences on phones and computers.

Public officials continue to urge people to stay home and limit social contact with others. Businesses and schools are closed. 

To document the ways COVID-19 has affected the university community, the CU Boulder Libraries Department of Special Collections, Archives and Preservation (SCAP) has launched the Documenting Community, 2020 Digital Archives project. 

 'Call someone you care about today & tell them.'  'Playground closed in accordance with executive order in response to COVID-19'  'Practice social distancing by exploring local forests and state parks!' Sign announces business closing due to COVID-19 with tentative reopening date of March 30, later scratched out with pen and question marks. 'Nothing made our spaces feel emptier than missing you, and we are delighted to welcome you back June 1st at 7 am!' Student takes a photo of a vacant store through the window

Click images to enlarge. All photos taken in the Chicago area by student archivist Drew Gaines.

Students participating in the project are producing a variety of creative works and are recording interviews with students, staff, educators, friends, family and community members. The goal is to gather student impressions of the events occurring during social distancing throughout the country. 

In this unprecedented time in history, students in several departments have served as archivists to preserve their voices, thoughts and experiences. Students from English, history, Sewall RAP; art and art history; the College of Media, Communication and Information; interdisciplinary media arts practices; and the Program for Writing and Rhetoric are participating in the project with student employees from SCAP and the University Libraries.

A collection of photography, audio interviews, digital mapping, artwork, diaries and timelines has created the foundation for the COVID-19 digital archive at CU Boulder.

The idea for the project grew from a conversation Susan Guinn-Chipman, SCAP’s instruction and exhibits manager with University Libraries, had with a group of students a few days before the campus closed in March. 

“It was their senior year and they were really feeling the loss of those special things that are embedded in the culmination of one’s undergraduate studies and that really struck me,” Guinn-Chipman said. “There are so many things about the senior year that are important. Initially, we thought of the project as a way to give students a means with which to reflect and to process the feelings they were experiencing through quarantine and the pandemic.”

Additionally, SCAP had been brainstorming ways that student employees could work remotely. From there the Documenting Community, 2020 project expanded to include students in other departments.

“Before students started their projects, we provided them with the permission and release forms that they would need to conduct interviews with and to take digital photos of individuals,” said Kalyani Fernando, collection development archivist. “Our set of guidelines stressed the importance of obtaining these permissions, and the ethics behind documenting other people’s experiences.” 

‘What they’re going through does matter’

One of the student archivists was Drew Gaines, a graduating senior who majored in history with a minor in ethnic studies and philosophy. 

Because there is such a nationwide spread of loss, when you hear someone say ‘I care about you and I care about what you’re going through,’ it shifts that story where students can feel like what they’re going through does matter.”
–Drew Gaines, 2020 graduate and student archivist

Gaines became involved with the project through her history internship with the library’s special collections department. And since she couldn’t work on her original hands-on job cataloging and producing a finding aid for one of the library collections, she joined the Documenting Community project.

She used a combination of photography and interviews with students. When walking around campus and Boulder, she photographed unique-looking COVID-related signs, such as, “There are new rules,” or “Store is closing temporarily.” She has since moved back home to Illinois where she continued listening to students’ stories about how they’re feeling about COVID-19. She is taking photographs of businesses in towns around the North Shore of Chicago near where she lives in Highland Park, Illinois.

Participating in this project has allowed Gaines to reflect on what it means to lose cultural rituals. 

“So many people said that talking about it helps them process what’s going on,” Gaines said. “COVID tragedies are all over. It can feel like no one is listening to our own losses. Because there is such a nationwide spread of loss, when you hear someone say ‘I care about you and I care about what you’re going through,’ it shifts that story where students can feel like what they’re going through does matter.”

Through her interviews, Gaines learned that students are mourning the loss of social rituals, particularly the graduating seniors. All the social rituals that go along with this momentous occasion of commencement had been stripped away. Their families and friends couldn’t witness it in person, there were no parties, no celebrations.

“One of the most impactful interviews I did was with a senior,” Gaines said. “We were talking about graduation and how she’s feeling about not being able to be there in person. She said graduation isn’t just about herself. It was about her entire family. It was about the fact that she was the first generation to graduate and how she should be there in person and experiencing it with friends and family.”

The student also missed not being able to hug friends and family. 

“It made me think about the loss of cultural rituals,” Gaines said. “The thing about them is it’s not just graduation but also funerals, birthdays, weddings, all these monumental events that are sentimental in person, but are now gone.”

Gaines celebrated commencement with family and friends through an online video chat dinner. 

Unlike talking to people and hearing about their experiences, photography is a solo process for Gaines as she walks around the city with her camera. In those moments, as she looks around, no one else is on the street and businesses are closed or struggling to open. That’s when it hits her.

“What’s the future going to be like for those businesses and when can they reopen?” she asks. “What does that mean for the owners and employees? What does it mean for all of us? People should understand that their story is important. What has happened to everyone is important and that’s why this project is important.”