“How Are We Going to Look Back on This Time?” Oral Historians Record Daily Life During COVID-19.Historians in the News
tags: oral history, social history, COVID-19
I almost started this post with the words “Studs Terkel.” And then I wanted to punch myself in the face. Studs Terkel—the irreverent, leftist, legendary oral historian—may be well-known and beloved, but the idea that there’s a “great man” of oral history is totally antithetical to the entire concept of populist history that he supposedly represents. In fact, there are hundreds of people, many using she/her pronouns, who are working feverishly to collect audio recordings, videos, photographs, and written accounts about what people’s lives look like during this pandemic.
One of them is Meral Agish, the community coordinator for Queens Memory, a community archiving partnership between Queens Public Library and Queens College CUNY.
On March 16, the Queens Public Library closed all 65 its branches to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Within the next two weeks, central Queens emerged as the epicenter within the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 7,260 cases recorded within a 7-square-mile radius. “It felt like we need to do whatever we can to record what life is like in Queens right now,” Agish told me.
Queens Memory has been collecting oral histories, photographs, and home videos from Queens residents since 2010. On the day the library closed, Agish and the Queens Memory team discussed creating a large crowdsourced campaign, the likes of which they’d never done before, to collect the stories of daily life in Queens during the pandemic. I was familiar with the work of Queens Memory, and I gave them some tips on a workflow for the first season of their podcast. But I haven’t been involved in their oral history collection.
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