Recap: SAA’s 2021 Annual Section Meeting: Archival History and Pandemics

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists’ Archival History Section continued the trend from last year and went virtual once again. The meeting featured two presentations focused on pandemics and the response of the archival community. 

The 2020-2021 Archival History Section Chair, Sebastian Modrow (Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Syracuse University), presided over the Zoom presentation, held at 12:00PM ET on July 26, 2021–now available for viewing at the SAA website. Mario Ramirez, section liaison, gave an update from SAA Council and Archival History News co-editor, Natalie Worsham, reported on the AHN year in review. Steven D. Booth introduced their Archival Revolutions project with Brenda Gunn. Sebastian announced the winners of the Archival History Article Award for 2021, Anthea Josias for “Archives, records, and land restitution in South Africa” (for an article published in 2020 by a member of SAA) and Derek K. O’Leary for “Deborah Norris Logan and the Archival Threshold in the Antebellum U.S.” (for an article published in 2020 by a non-member of SAA).

Beginning the first presentation at 12:23 PM ET (or 20:35 on the SAA recording), Dr. J. Alexander Navarro has worked for the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan for over 15 years and has focused his research on the historical, social, economic, and political ramifications of the 1918 and 2009 influenza pandemics. He presented a brief overview of the 1918-1919 pandemic and discussed the Center’s “escape community” study focused on communities that were able to avoid outbreaks of influenza during that pandemic and how that information could be used in the future to mitigate any upcoming contagious disease spread. 

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Excerpt, Alex Navarro’s presentation, in Zoom. Courtesy of Natalie Worsham.

The Center conducted another study on the 1918 pandemic in partnership with the CDC in order to understand the effectiveness of nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as social distancing and masking. Looking at the 45 most populous cities in the U.S. during 1918, they used primary sources to deduce that early use of these interventions were successful in reducing overall excess mortality. Expanding from this research, the team decided to increase the cities examined and digitize these documents into the Influenza Archive in conjuncture with MLibraries and MPublishing in 2012. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Archive saw increased popularity with thousands of visitors per day. The Center maintains the archive and continues to digitize additional images and documentation.

In her role as Head of Archives User Engagement, Sarah M. Allison at Ball State University has developed and managed community collaboration-based projects such as the Document Your Story: COVID-19 Pandemic Project Archive. Described in the second presentation (beginning at 45:13 on the SAA recording), the project is a united effort among Ball State University, Muncie Public Library, and the Everyday Life in Middletown Project. The idea for the project came from a recognition of the lack of firsthand accounts from epidemics in the past. After reaching out to the two other organizations, the online formats were created in order to solicit materials from community members. 

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Excerpt, Sarah Ball’s presentation, in Zoom. Courtesy of Natalie Worsham.

Using the Muncie Public Library’s access to BiblioBoard, the project was able to create a web submission form in order for users to add digital content. Most of the incoming content has been photographic. The project has no end date and remains continuous. The Everyday Life in Middletown Project has maintained studies in Muncie since the 1920s. Volunteer diarists continue to record their lives for the project. In March 2020 and May 2021, the diarists were specifically instructed to document their experiences during the pandemic, with an overall theme being adaptation, gratitude, and personal grooming. After a year of working on the project, Document Your Story is now online along with the Ball State University COVID-19 Archive

Incoming Chair, Susan Tucker (Retired, Tulane University) introduced the newly elected roster of Archival History Section members who will sit on the Steering Committee for 2021-2022. The meeting was adjured at 1:15PM ET.

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