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Duty now for the future: Local historians seek COVID-19 stories, info

Duty now for the future: Local historians seek COVID-19 stories, info

Duty now for the future: Local historians seek COVID-19 stories, info
Denis Brennan, Niskayuna town historian, and his wife, Margaret, stop for a photo during their walk.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Denis Brennan believes Capital Region residents must consider the future.

"Being witnesses to history is something important," said Brennan, historian for the town of Niskayuna.

People of 2020 are witnessing a major drama right now, observing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. They've seen crowded hospitals and tragedies in New York City; the courage of doctors, nurses and medical personnel throughout the country; social distancing outdoors and self-isolation indoors.

"It's happening right now," Brennan said. "What is tomorrow's history? This is tomorrow's history. And collecting that information, collecting those stories now in some sort of deliberative way, could be very useful for future historians."

Brennan and other local and state historians are asking people to write down their experiences in journals, take photographs, shoot videos. The data will be handed to future generations.

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The mandate has come from the Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS).

In late March, the association asked historians to:

* Record memories of local events and reactions to COVID-19 at least since the beginning of March, update the journals as days pass and encourage the public to do the same.

* Take or collect photographs of various ways the community is responding. 

* Make note of county, regional, state, and national declarations that have community impacts, as well as community responses.

* Save local news reports -- from print, television, radio and online sources -- as well as social media notices.

* Note any creative online activities people have created locally to keep people informed.

* Keep records of specific activities community citizens are taking to help each other in the crisis, such as making grocery runs for the elderly. Collect letters, posters, flyers and social media posts that advertise these activities.

* Talk with and record (when possible) oral history interviews with community officials, first responders, and medical personnel about the actions they are taking and how the public is interacting with them.

"We're at a critical moment in our history," said Christine L. Ridarsky, president of APHNYS and the city historian in Rochester. "Just as we are looking back now at the Spanish Influenza of 1918 for clues to how to react to COVID-19, future generations will learn from what's happening now.

"As public historians," Ridarsky added, "our job is not only to study the past but to document the present."

Right now, everyone is a historian.

"There are simple things every one of us can be doing," Ridarsky said. "Keep a diary. It can be in any format you want -- pen and paper, computer, voice recording. Social media can also serve as a diary of sorts. Some people are even using artwork to express themselves. Photographs are also a great way to record what's happening.

"The key is to ensure that once this is all over, or at some point in your lifetime, you transfer your memories to someone who will preserve them, whether that be your local government historian or your library or historical society," Ridarsky also said. "Your stories matter. They will help future generations to understand what it was like to live during COVID-19 and to learn from you."

Brennan has emailed a request to town residents, asking them to send him COVID-19-related stories, photos, poetry and art. When the crisis has ended and town residents return to normal life, Brennan wants to be able to tell the story about the coronavirus and how it affected Niskayuna.

Capital Region residents already have seen things they've never seen before. Among the sights are large groups of people wearing medical masks; kids creating rainbows for their homes and driveways, part of the now-international  "rainbow hunt" that started in Scotia; teacher parades; shortages of bathroom tissue and disinfectants; and protective plastic shields at supermarket check-out counters,

Brennan has participated in another activity that has boomed since virus warnings began and spring weather arrived.

"My wife and I walk around the neighborhood on nice days and we've met, gotten to know -- at a proper social distance -- neighbors who have lived three houses away from us for the past 10 years but we've never got to meet them," he said.

Brennan hopes people will send him stories about their activities during this coronavirus year -- like the story he has already received about the couple who moved up their wedding date and had to practice social distancing during the proceedings. He does not want to depend solely on social media posts and storage of data on the Internet.

"The way systems change," he said, "the way things are stored changes so much. Fifty years from now, a story today might not be retrievable any more."

Brennan also said, once the crisis has passed, town residents could gather at Edwin D. Reilly Jr. Niskayuna Town Hall for a history forum and tell their stories during a session that would be recorded and saved.

Details can be emailed to Brennan at [email protected] or mailed to him at Town Hall, 1 Niskayuna Circle, Niskayuna, N.Y. 12309.

Schenectady City Historian Chris Leonard is also collecting details as the COVID-19 story unfolds.

"Historians are not only tasked with keeping up and interpreting the history of our given localities, but we're also supposed to capture a lot of what has taken place in the places we live during periods like this," he said.

In Schenectady, fact collection started early.

"Cindy Seacord and I were way out ahead of this one," Leonard said of Schenectady's archivist.

"On March 5, we were both in the Efner (history) Center and we kind of looked at each other as we were reading news reports about it and we said, 'We can probably start recording this,'" Leonard said. "About a week before everything hit the fan, we started tracking how it was being dealt with politically, at the federal level, at the state level, regionally and also in the City of Schenectady.

"As things began to move further beyond that," Leonard added, "we've been collecting dictates and reactions and policies that have been coming out of local businesses, local organizations, churches, schools, all kinds of organizations like that as part of the longer tale that were trying to tell." 

Leonard's project is different from the Niskayuna mission. The Schenectady historian is not looking for personal stories, he is interested in the political and economic ripples that have been caused by the virus outbreak. The Schenectady County Historical Society is asking for personal reflections.

"In the end, we're both going to have very different repositories that are going to be very interesting together," Leonard said.

"We're capturing this for the future researchers in 50, 100 years who want to know and understand what happened, how we dealt with it," Leonard added. "How we shut down our society, how our supermarkets and food distribution networks, all these kind of things were affected and how we worked through it as best we could. There's going to be a lot of information for them to look into."

Marietta Carr, librarian and archivist at the historical society, will be assembling some of the information that will be around in 2120.

"At the historical society, we've always collected things like scrapbooks and diaries, family letters, family photo albums, things like that," she said. "We're hoping that people are working on those kinds of materials specifically in this moment.

"We've heard from people who have started keeping journals  or who have started a project of taking a photo every day about what they're doing or how they're feeling or something that's going on in their environment, to help document how this pandemic has impacted them individually," Carr also said. "As we move forward, we're hoping to collect those materials in the coming months and years."

Contributing journals, recollections or anything relating to the coronavirus days also will ensure someone's name will be carried forward into history.

"We've had the call out for materials created by sort of ordinary people, people who might not have made it into the historical record through the newspapers or through being politicians or being major players in the community but who have experienced events and recorded their experiences in various ways," Carr said.

Contributor names will be important to people in generations to come. Carr said genealogy researchers who visit the center often have questions about their ancestors.

"People ask not just, 'When was my ancestor alive?' but 'How did they live?' and 'What were they doing?' and 'What did they care about?' and 'How did they make decisions?'" Carr said.

Out-of-town visitors, Carr added, want to know why their ancestors decided to leave Schenectady.

"Really, the only way to do that is to try and find in some cases the writings of that person, the letters or the diaries or the notes they made themselves as they were packing up," Carr said. "Not just for historians, but for genealogists this kind of record might be really valuable."

Like Brennan, Carr wants to remind people they are players in a drama that will be remembered throughout time.

"In this particular moment, we felt it was important to remind people they are history makers and what they're doing right now to make sense of their experiences is something historians and researchers of the future will want to see," she said.

Carr said materials can be emailed to her at the society at [email protected] The mailing address is 32 Washington Ave., Schenectady, 12305.

"We are more than happy to work with them to accept the materials in whatever format  they are created, either analog or digital," Carr said.

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Thank You

Schenectady County Historian Bill Buell is confident people in the future will be glad people in the past chronicled the coronavirus.

"Between the work being done by at the Efner Center by city Historian Chris Leonard and Cindy Seacord, and another effort initiated by the Schenectady County Historical Society, the COVID-19 story and how it impacted Schenectady will be well documented for future historians," Buell said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Wilkin at 518-641-8400 or at [email protected]

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