Snyder: Archiving Pandemic With Community Help

In the early days of the pandemic, empty shelves at Smith’s meant doing without some items. Photo by Sharon Snyder

Los Alamos Historical Society

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, it was natural to make comparisons to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. However, when news reporters in California contacted museum archives and the state historical society for information, only a few records and one photograph turned up!

Apparently, no one had recorded circumstances or first hand stories of the people who lived through that 1918 event. I encountered the same difficulty when I looked for firsthand observations and news coverage in New Mexico.

From past research on another topic, I remembered one firsthand account by Aileen O’Bryan, the woman who would become the first matron at the Los Alamos Ranch School. She and her mother were living in Tesuque, and in her memoir she wrote, “In l9l8, the influenza struck. With too few doctors to handle the people, my mother and I undertook to care for the stricken in the Tesuque Valley.” Both women had some nursing experience, but “We had no car,” she continued. “We rode horseback into the mountain settlements, sometimes together, sometimes alone, carrying the needed supplies, medicinal and food, in our saddle bags. Returning at night, half dead from fatigue, there was sometimes a man waiting to guide us to a new victim of the disease.”

Such firsthand comments are rare, and as with today’s pandemic, statistics were not always accurate. Some estimates tell us that by the end of 1920, when the disease had run its course, approximately 675,000 people had died in the United States. Statistics have survived, but very little knowledge of the feelings and hardships remain.

My grandparents lived through the 1918 pandemic, but as a child I didn’t know to ask them about the experience. Would they have told me of precautions they took? Were there food shortages? Were they worried about their young children? Did they save any newspaper clippings? I don’t have answers to any of those questions, which points to the fact that it is important to leave stories and observations for your descendants.

It is also important that towns, states, and national archives save news coverage and firsthand stories of major events. History is composed not only of major events that appear on the nightly news broadcasts. To understand a historic event, we need the stories of the people who lived through that event, those who witnessed it. Headlines and statistics don’t tell future generations how you felt and what the day-to-day experience held!

In these days of the COVID-19 pandemic we are experiencing a major historical event, and it is important that archives collect documentation and stories from residents in the immediate area. That is why the Los Alamos Historical Society Archive is reaching out to our community to help preserve this important history as it happens.

Some ideas for for sharing your thoughts, stories, and material items are suggested below, but there are many other possibilities. In thinking of the past five months, what will you share to help complete a picture of these days for future historians?

A few suggestions —

Have you traveled during the pandemic? If so, where did you go. What was different. Were there worries, difficulties, shortages, etc?

How has the threat of the COVID-19 virus shaped your life in these past months?

If you had a pet or adopted one when the pandemic arrived, how have they helped you get through this time?

Most news coverage has centered on the horrors of this crisis, but in every bad time there is something good to be found. What do you see as something good coming from this crisis?

Were there material goods that you could not purchase, and if so, how did this shortage affect your everyday life?

In your opinion, what has been the most critical change for Los Alamos?

What would you want researchers or your grandchildren to know decades from now about these days and how you lived them?

If you worked remotely, what did you like or dislike about that experience?

Do you have items that we might use in special exhibits when one day we look back on this period in the history of Los Alamos?

If there are school age young people in your family, their thoughts are welcome, too. Perhaps write down what you liked and/or disliked about distance learning. Donate a favorite lesson you learned via computer or a sample of homework you submitted. What was difficult about distance learning? What did you like about it? For parents, what was your opinion of distance learning?

Submit a photo or two of your student(s) at work on the computer.

Donation suggestions include photos, diary pages, video footage, designer or homemade masks, online assignments and homework submitted, graduation celebrations, the very different birthday parties, weddings, other celebrations, and any creative ideas you have!

To make arrangements for donations, contact Registrar Stephanie Yeamans at Briefly explain your contribution(s) in an email, and she will get back to you. Thank you for your support!

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