Campus History

The Pandemic for Posterity

UW Archives collects artifacts from an extraordinary year.

How are you getting through the pandemic? Maybe you’re making surreal drawings of the coronavirus. Maybe you’re writing mournful poetry. Maybe you’re filling a journal with inspiring thoughts and doodles.

These are among the materials UW Archives has collected for its Documenting COVID-19 project. In spring 2020, as the rest of us scrambled to buy masks and hand sanitizer, the UW’s resourceful archivists were already thinking of posterity. They put out a call for photos, videos, social media posts, and other digital artifacts from the campus community. They also began conducting interviews to add to their Oral History Program collection.

The goal was to preserve Badger experiences of a unique historical moment.

Artwork by Thomas Ferrella with words "Virus, Killer, Attacks, Outbreak, Threat, Pandemic, Your future, Empty"

Thomas Ferrella

Artwork by Rachel Litchman

Rachel Litchman

“We strive to collect and make available materials that document the cultural heritage of society,” says Katie Nash, university archivist and head of UW Archives. “It’s imperative that we try to capture the pandemic experience from multiple perspectives so others can better understand this period of time.”

Hundreds of submissions came in, some of them aching with despair. Rachel Litchman x’21’s drawing of a “Vote Here” sign inside a coronavirus is labeled “This Is Not Normal.” UW lecturer Renee Lajcak’s poem “Flattening the Curve” begins: “The morning news brings new numbers, / As cases and deaths rise.”

Pandemic artwork

Mae Wilson

Pandemic artwork by Julia Buskirk

Julia Buskirk x’22 | Emily Goll

Other entries are more lighthearted. Emily Goll x’21’s social-distancing bingo card includes squares for “Snacked All Day Long” and “Binged an Entire Season.”

Sifting through these materials was an emotional experience for the Archives staff.

“I think people are trying to make the best of a terrible crisis,” Nash says. “There is a lot of hope as well as despair expressed through the submissions. It seems that people miss community, seeing friends and family, and being on campus.”

You can learn how to donate your own COVID-19 artifacts on the UW Archives website. You’ll be doing future generations a favor.

“The materials and interviews will show how people coped with these uncertain times, when so many adjustments have been made to daily life,” says Nash. “I imagine scholars and researchers will benefit not only from the scientific data related to the pandemic, but also the social and cultural underpinnings represented in firsthand accounts and original works. We each have a story, and we need to preserve it for generations to come.”

Published in the Spring 2021 issue


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