How will the Bay Area remember the COVID-19 pandemic? For University Archivist Carli Lowe, the pandemic has offered a unique opportunity to interact with history in real time. This summer SJSU’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, in partnership with the College of Humanities and the Arts, have officially launched “In Our Own Words: A Multilingual Public History of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Bay Area,” a public digital humanities project designed to document Bay Area residents’ personal experiences of the pandemic.
The project is the result of Lowe’s partnership with San José State Assistant Professor of World Languages and Literatures Chunhui Peng, a memory studies scholar who is adding a multilingual component to the project.
“Usually, archives deal with records of things that happened many, many decades ago, or even centuries in the past,” said Lowe. “One of the reasons I was excited to partner with Dr. Peng is that we are very focused on collecting memories as they unfold in our contemporary moment. We know that we are living in a historic moment.”
In May 2020, Lowe launched “Spartans Speak on COVID-19,” a project designed to memorialize journal entries, blog posts, social media posts, photographs, audio and video recordings, and other documentation of personal experiences during the pandemic and make them available online through SJSU Digital Collections. Community members have shared the effects of social distancing and county shelter-in-place orders on their social lives, mental health, financial well-being, and campus life. The project has already amassed more than 300 submissions.
Peng responded to Lowe’s call for submissions with a proposal to widen the project scope to reflect the diverse communities of the Bay Area. Together, they partnered with several faculty members of the World Languages and Literatures Department to translate their call for submissions into seven of the most commonly spoken languages in the Bay Area — English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Russian. Associate Dean of Faculty Success and Research Jason Aleksander has been a big proponent of the project.
“‘In Our Own Words’ builds on ongoing collaborations between the library and the College of Humanities and the Arts to establish a digital humanities center at SJSU,” said Aleksander.
“The project also fits well with one of the major public programming themes sponsored by the college — ‘Racial Equality and Social Justice’ — a series of public events that engages broadly with challenges and opportunities in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. ‘In Our Own Words’ is an impressive and interesting project.”
Peng and Lowe hope to capture a 360-degree perspective of the pandemic by including essential workers such as farmworkers, health care workers, grocery store employees, as well as students and families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and employees who were laid off or had their careers otherwise derailed
“In memory studies, we always ask who is speaking and for what purpose,” said Peng. “The second world war was written differently by different groups — by the United States, by Germany, by Japan. Some groups were less visible in the conversation, and their voices were not recorded. That’s why it is very important for us to give all the invisible voices a chance to share their experiences about the pandemic.”
Lowe added that the true power of a digital archive is that it expands access to critical information to those who may not have been able to contribute to it.
“Information can be transformative for individuals and communities,” said Lowe. “I’m trying to think about whose voices are being heard through this collection and whose voices are not being heard.
“My motivation as an archivist is rooted in actively making space in collections to serve people who may or may not be in power, projects that serve the needs of marginalized people. I see a project like this as an opportunity to create access to information and to bring people together.”