UMaine library to document pandemic life through community archive project

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ORONO — The University of Maine is documenting the community’s coronavirus pandemic experiences with an archive project spearheaded by the Special Collections Department at Raymond H. Fogler Library.

The project is calling for social media posts, photographs and personal reflections by students, as well as other content from faculty such as emails, updated course syllabuses or anything else that captures day-to-day life during the pandemic. 

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

The department is especially interested in hearing from first-generation U.S. citizens and international students, as well as those still living on or near the Orono campus, according to its website

Central Maine Power lineworkers on the job in Kennebec County during the 1998 ice storm. (Courtesy of Herb Swanson | SWANPIX and Central Maine Power)

The project is aimed at documenting the “actions, thoughts and reflections of the UMaine community as they navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the university said.

Matthew Revitt, a Special Collections and Maine Shared Collection librarian who is heading the initiative, ideally wants materials that will help future researchers understand how the campus community responded during the pandemic. 

Mostly, he wants to document how the pandemic started and evolved, and the ways it changed life for the UMaine community. 

Before launching the project nearly two weeks ago, Revitt looked to other U.S. colleges and universities for inspiration about the ways they were using their archives to document this time. 

University archivists at Carnegie Mellon in Pennsylvania are also soliciting contributions from its community, in hopes of drawing parallels to how the school responded to the Spanish Flu pandemic more than a century ago. 

[In 1918, a pandemic swept through Maine — and offers lessons for containing COVID-19]

But that’s not exactly what Revitt had in mind when he started the Orono project. He wants to collect materials that represent the seemingly mundane parts of daily life during a pandemic — documents that will one day illustrate defining moments in history for local people.  

So far, Revitt has received about 30 individual responses — mostly emails from university officials about new changes and closures, but also some personal reflections from students whose academic and social lives have been upended. 

One international student submitted a short reflective essay about the troubles he and his brother — who also lives in Maine — had trying to get back home to Spain to be with family.

When the crisis began to escalate in Spain, they booked flights home as early as possible. On March 16, one day after buying their tickets, their connecting flight from Lisbon to Valencia was canceled because of the virus — something they only learned about from the airline staff upon checking in. 

A rescue official maneuvers his boat around a partially submerged car after picking up a stranded woman from a flooded parking lot in Gardiner, Maine, in this April 2, 1987, file photo. (Pat Wellenbach | AP)

Fearful of getting trapped in another foreign country if they booked another trip and their connecting flight was canceled again, the brothers decided to stay in the United States. 

Among personal reflections, Revitt has also collected routine updates from the University of Maine System’s Chancellor Dan Malloy and President Joan Ferrini-Mundy on the school’s action plans. 

He’s also accepting other people’s stories who live in the Orono area but aren’t necessarily affiliated with the university, he said. Revitt will add the collection to the library’s digital commons, which people can access for free. 

Libraries in other parts of the state have started similar projects to document the evolving coronavirus pandemic, too. The Heart of Maine Community Stories is taking submissions for its online emergency archive, created by the Hartland Public Library, Newport Cultural Center, Pittsfield Public Library and Thompson Free Library in Dover-Foxcroft.  

The cooperative is also accepting stories from people who’ve lived through previous disasters in Maine, like the Ice Storm of 1998 and the 500-year flood, or as it’s colloquially known, the April Fool’s Day Flood in 1987.

People can submit their experiences during the coronavirus pandemic to the “My Maine Stories” forum through the Maine Memory Network, too. The organization is accepting written stories, photographs, recorded audio and videos. 

Additionally, the network is looking for stories about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the polio epidemic, the AIDS crisis or other large-scale disasters that Maine communities experienced. 

For those outside of the Orono region, Revitt suggests people send stories or other documents they want included in the archives to participating libraries or check if their own local libraries are doing similar projects. 

People can send in materials via the library’s online form or by emailing them to directly

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