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Groups document Arkansans' experiences in pandemic

by Nyssa Kruse, Rachel Herzog | February 22, 2021 at 7:18 a.m.
This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles which cause covid-19. According to research released in 2021, evidence is mounting that having covid-19 may not protect against getting infected again with some of the new variants. People also can get second infections with earlier versions of the coronavirus if they mounted a weak defense the first time. (Hannah A. Bullock, Azaibi Tamin/CDC via AP)

Weeks after the first cases of covid-19 were discovered in Arkansas in March, libraries and cultural institutions began asking the community to help document a pandemic that markedly altered and shaped daily life.

Nearly a year later, the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in the Central Arkansas Library System; the University of Arkansas Libraries' Special Collections division and Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts; and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center are still asking for people to share their stories, pictures and other pandemic mementos.

The materials the institutions have collected so far encompass the lighthearted -- like a boy in a yard rowing a "boat" made of the discarded boxes that held a bed his parents purchased with their stimulus check -- as well as the heartbreaking.

One Mosaic Templars staff member contributed the handwritten notes the person's mother wrote when she was intubated and unable to speak before she died from covid-19, center Director Christina Shutt said.

There are pictures of "closed" signs on businesses and playgrounds as well as masked selfies and images of home haircuts.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

"I just feel like this time is history, and I know at some point when my children are older and they're in school, they're going to learn about the pandemic," said Kinatta Hobbs-Vaughn of North Little Rock, who contributed to the Butler Center a photo of herself at work wearing a blue, purple, green and yellow striped mask.

The Butler Center's efforts to document the pandemic include a digital repository for photographs as well as a questionnaire asking things such as how the pandemic has affected people's daily lives and what they want others to know in 100 years about what is happening right now.

Arkansans can find the questionnaire or submit photos online. Heather Zbinden, outreach coordinator for the library that houses the Butler Center, said photographs of families wearing masks or celebrating the holidays over the video-chat service Zoom are examples of the kind of documents being sought, but there aren't any strict parameters on what can be submitted.

Someone recently contacted the library to submit a handwritten diary the person has kept over the past year. And Brian Robertson, manager of the Research Services Division of the Butler Center, said one of the most interesting documents submitted so far is a nursing association's survey of its members, asking them about their experiences during the pandemic.

"That's been pretty powerful, reading this," Robertson said. "These were stories back early like, March, April, May, something like that, so they're kind of raw because it was still very new."

Participants in the survey wrote about their concerns about layoffs and furloughs, the availability of personal protective equipment such as masks, the risk of exposing family members, adapting to telemedicine visits, and the stress in both their home and work environments.

"Our practice has had a steep learning curve for telemedicine and we have had to adjust to help flatten the curve. I'm still working and having to go home and do homeschool with my children which is a lot. I think this is a huge strain on a lot of essential workers in our state," a nurse from Fort Smith wrote.

Another, from Morrilton, wrote that the inability to get personal protective equipment was "terrifying."

After a strong stream of submissions in the spring and summer, Robertson said, they dropped off significantly, even as the pandemic itself has not abated. He said the library has been discussing the need for continued promotion of the campaign to make sure it captures the experiences throughout the pandemic.

"I think there's kind of covid fatigue; all of us have that to a certain degree," Robertson said. "But I think that the key for us or what we would like people to know is that we are still interested in these stories and these stories matter."

Robertson said some people may be hesitant to submit things because they feel like their experiences aren't particularly special. But that's exactly why the library is seeking input from everyday people -- Zbinden said the actions and experiences of the famous or powerful are well-documented throughout history.

What is typically missing or spotty in the historical record are the experiences of everyday people.

"It doesn't matter what you did or what your individual story is," Robertson said. "Just from a collective standpoint, they're all important. And I think that everybody has a story to tell."

The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center's project, "COVID in BLACK," is seeking to document the experiences of Black Arkansans during the pandemic. Submissions can be made online, and Shutt said some of her favorites have been photos of drive-in church services, where the pastor is standing underneath a tent in a parking lot and a congregation of people in vehicles are tuning their radios to listen.

"For too long in history, we have omitted those stories. We have not talked about Black Arkansans; we have not talked about Black women and the impact that they have and continue to have on the state," Shutt said. "For me, the theme that stands out is adaptability and survivability. ... Even with a pandemic that should stop us or slow us down or kill us, literally in this case, people are creating new businesses, they are creating new avenues for growth."

UNIVERSITY EFFORTS

At the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, oral interviews and reflections have been collected by Virginia Siegel, folk arts coordinator at Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts, and university archivist Amy Allen.

Allen's job is to collect materials that document the history of the university. Although the pandemic-related self-reflections and other materials she's gathering from university-connected people might be outside the official record, she said she felt they were meaningful. One of the donations was an art project.

"I just felt very strongly that we should offer this to the university community as kind of a way to express what they were going through during this time," Allen said.

Siegel said she cherishes early interviews, when "everything was still so new and novel" and there were a lot of efforts to "create community in a sudden world of social distancing."

She recalled a Fayetteville man who got his neighbors to blast Bob Seger music out their windows each night at 8:15 p.m., as well as efforts to create community gardens during the summer.

She said she'll continue to collect stories, even after life goes back to normal, from anyone in Arkansas who still wants to share them. Allen said she also foresees leaving her project open after the pandemic is over.

"Just talking with other archivists in other states who have done ... dealing with other tragedies, I've heard from that that a lot of people, they don't want to think about it and reflect until after it's over," Allen said.

Reflecting on the pandemic in a phone interview Friday, Hobbs-Vaughn said her year wasn't without difficulties and sadness, including the death of a co-worker and the challenges of home-schooling her two children, ages 4 and 5.

But she said she's grateful for her support system and that 2020 also brought positives, including a chance to slow down and focus on creative projects such as starting her own all-natural skin-care line.

"It's just been an indescribable experience," she said. "My dreams and goals went on the back burner. I had time to sit down because I can't go to a movie or go to the mall. I think, just to focus on your goals and your dreams, it's never too late. It's been some sadness; it's been a lot."

The Butler Center's website for pandemic contributions is: https://robertslibrary.org/collections/covid19/

The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center's website is: https://www.arkansasheritage.com/mosaic-templars-cultural-center/support-us/covid-in-black

The University of Arkansas Special Collections website is: https://news.uark.edu/articles/52652/share-your-covid-19-experience-with-university-libraries

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