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A Few Concerns I Have About Historians Reading My Coronavirus Diary

Historians want to hear about everyday people's experiences during the pandemic. Would it be embarrassing if they read about mine?
18 May 2020, 1:53am
A woman writing in her journal with a cup of coffee

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

My senior year of college, I made my friend Chris the unofficial executor of my journals. I had only been journaling for a few months, but I’d already filled two small notebooks with enough embarrassing confessions and reflections that I knew I didn’t want anyone to see them, ever. In the event of my untimely death, I instructed, he should burn the notebooks. (There was one exception: I told Chris he was to deliver certain pages of the journals to a crush, whom I believed had sent me mixed signals, along with the message “please think about what you do.”)

It wasn’t anything more than a running joke between Chris and me—there was no reason for anyone to be interested in the mundanities of my life, least of all a publisher or historian. But now, mundanities are all we have (if we’re lucky), and historians are interested in them. Living through a pandemic is a historic event, even if all we’re doing is surviving it—baking bread, getting into comically trivial arguments with our partners, and doing workout videos in our apartments.

After seeing an April New York Times headline that read “What Historians Will See When They Look Back on the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020,” which included an excerpt from a farmer’s 1918 diary as its lead image, I considered my own diaries, of which there are now eight. Recent entries detail the events happening around me—new government mandates, rising death tolls, grim predictions. But they also include petty concerns and indulgent, self-pitying feelings that don’t matter anymore. Oh no, I thought, what if historians read my diary?

“You want to be boring to historians,” said Katherine Landdeck, a history professor at Texas Woman’s University. “If you think back to your high school or college history classes, there are entire periods of history that get skipped—you usually skip to the part where there’s conflict or struggle of some sort. As a historian it’s fun to study those times, but it’s not fun to live through them as an individual.”

Historians prize diaries because they offer a glimpse of everyday life not often found in newspaper articles or other official documents scholars use to understand historical events, Landdeck said. They capture our habits and rhythms, as well as the subtle shifts in our emotional states. In March, when we began entering quarantine, many of us were overcome with fear and uncertainty, moods that may have been reflected in our accounts of those early days of self-isolation. Two months later, most of us have adapted to our new reality, and restlessness or what some are calling “quarantine fatigue” have set in.

The first time I wrote in my journal during quarantine was March 17, a little more than a week after VICE’s offices closed. I tell “the reader” (me) about estimates that, in a worst-case scenario, as many as 1.7 million people could die from the coronavirus, how I’d gone to the grocery store in a panic, and how my roommate had already lost his job at a Manhattan restaurant. He’d found out while we were watching what would be the last Democratic presidential debate, between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. In this entry and the few that followed, I’m interested in facts and figures. Later, I write more about the routine I’ve fallen into—daily walks in the middle of the day or right after work, attempts to get better at running outside, descriptions of delicious meals I’ve cooked with my roommate or boyfriend.

More recently, I’ve written with irritation about life under quarantine. I want to see my friends. I want to go outside. I can’t believe there are so many dishes to wash; I can’t believe humans are supposed to eat three meals a day.

“Journals are so important because they show how one person’s view or experience of something changes over time,” Landdeck said. “When you look back to the month or two ago when this started, you’re going to be worrying about different things than you are today.”

Usually when historians consult journals, they’re from decades or even centuries ago. But now, publications and institutions have been collecting personal writing on the pandemic in real time in an effort to capture the scale of the crisis and the variety of the lives that are being lived within it.

Journal of the Plague Year,” is one such project, an initiative led by historians at Arizona State University, named for Daniel Defoe's 1722 novel about a man living through the bubonic plague. Anyone can submit a document to the archive through an online portal, and decide whether or not they want the document—which can take the form of a diary entry, photograph, sketch, or even a Snapchat, Instagram post or meme—to be public or private. Private submissions can only be viewed by researchers and can never be published; anyone can browse through recent public submissions on the site’s homepage.

Since opening the portal in mid-March, hundreds of people have turned over small slices of life to the project. Over Zoom, Mark Tebeau, one of the lead researchers of “Journal of the Plague Year,” showed me a few entries that had been made public: Sketches of a person’s bedroom; a journal entry from an Arizona State student whose mother was a nurse at a local hospital; a photograph of the New York University dorm room Tebeau’s daughter had to suddenly pack up.

Collecting these stories as they’re happening allows historians to start making connections among them, Tebeau said. A month or two ago, more people were worrying about empty shelves at grocery stores—now he’s seeing more posts about wearing masks, which have become mandatory in some cities. Tebeau showed me a drop-down menu of about 50 tags he and his colleagues use to categorize each entry, which include “death & dying,” “economy,” “business and industry,” “conflict,” and “emotion.”

“Those tags are us saying to future historians, ‘Look, these two things are connected, even if the form of communication is different or the authors are from different places,’” Tebeau said.

He and his team of researchers are trying to anticipate what might be interesting to historians decades from now, and signal to them what is important to understand about life during the pandemic. They’re also trying to anticipate whose voices might be missing from their archive—as has been the case throughout history, those who are most able to document life are those with the leisure time (and therefore privilege) to do so. As part of “Journal of the Plague Year,” researchers have developed special projects to document the coronavirus pandemic through the eyes of homeless people on Los Angeles' Skid Row, Native Americans, and residents of New Orleans, a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Tebeau explained that certain researchers have been assigned to these areas, and that it’s their job to curate entries into a collection.

In an act of great bravery, I asked Tebeau to read a few pages from my journal. I chose an entry from April 2, which was only the second time I’d written under quarantine. I’d noted how many confirmed cases of coronavirus there were in New York state at the time (84,000) and how many people had died so far (1,900). Reading now, the numbers alone make this time feel far away and unfamiliar. I wrote that I haven’t been to the grocery store in two weeks, and that people have begun to move to the edge of the sidewalk when you walked past them. I wrote about how I was angry at my younger sister, who, according to my mother, had been flouting social-distancing measures to visit some of her friends.

Tebeau annotated my entry for me in the portal. He used the tags “business & industry,” since I had briefly mentioned recent pay cuts at VICE, along with “recreation & leisure,” and “emotions.” In a space where researchers can add their own tags, he wrote “strange” and “shuttered,” words I used to describe the world I encountered when I left my apartment. But was there anything useful, or even unique in my entry? I pressed Tebeau. Or was it like hundreds of others?

“Absolutely everything is interesting,” Tebeau told me. “That seems like a cop-out, but I’m endlessly delighted by the details people share—graffiti they see on their walks, a virtual family meeting, or a funny story about a Zoom class. All of those things tell us about this moment.”

I asked Lanndeck what sorts of things the women World War II pilots wrote about in their diaries, which she used to research her new book, The Women with Silver Wings. Though the drama of war was swirling around them, Landdeck said their writings weren’t absent of the mundane: There were entries about the weather, or what was playing at the movies, or a radio someone’s mother sent them in a care package.

I messaged my friend Rebecca Fishbein, who has been keeping a journal since the fourth grade, and asked how she would feel if a historian read it. She said that she isn’t usually a careful chronicler of current events—more often documenting thoughts and feelings about events in her own life—but recently she’s begun writing about the pandemic.

“I used to be terrified of someone reading them,” she told me. “But at this point, though I wouldn't be thrilled if someone read my journals, I don't think I'd be too embarrassed. Like, whom among us hasn't had a collection of extremely stupid thoughts in the past?”

I realized I felt the same as Rebecca. Turning over my personal writing to Tebeau had been an act of trust, certainly, but it was hardly the humiliation I imagined when I thought about a historian reading my diary in the abstract. It was almost therapeutic: Tebeau reassured me that my worries were other people’s worries too, and that none of what I was experiencing was too mundane not to matter.

Although he told me that there were some aspects of my journal entry that stuck out to him—he liked the description of my daily walks, for example—I know that what I’ve been writing is deeply ordinary. But now that it has been submitted to an archive, it is part of a collective story future historians will use to understand what it was like to be alive in 2020. (Many of them will likely be tasked with figuring out why, exactly, there are so many mentions of “Alison Roman’s shallot pasta.”)

Those historians will have a different perspective on the lives we’re living now, and how the coronavirus pandemic shaped them.

“The way historians interpret the things people are writing right now has great value, but in 30 or 50 years from now historians will interpret it differently,” Landdeck said. “They know how it ends.”

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