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Arts & Culture

Archivists At New York's Queens College Tell Our Pandemic Story Through Artifacts

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

When we look back on this time, this great pandemic that changed our lives, what will be the mementos and materials that define it? Archivists at New York's Queens College have been collecting pandemic artifacts since last year, when the New York City borough was the epicenter of the pandemic, to answer that question.

Annie Tummino is the head of special collections and archives at the Queens College Library, and she's part of the Queens Memory COVID-19 Project. Welcome to the program.

ANNIE TUMMINO: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we all kind of want to forget this time, I think (laughter). Where did the idea of curating a COVID-19 collection come from?

TUMMINO: Well, some people may not realize that, you know, the role of archivists is not only to preserve old records but also to figure out what's happening in the world today that researchers and community members will want to be able to study and understand in the future. You know, and we know that as time goes on, memories can fade or be misremembered.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me about what is in this collection. Is it oral histories? Is it actual physical objects?

TUMMINO: We're actually not collecting physical objects at the moment. We're only collecting digital items. And those digital items consist of, you know, oral history interviews that have been recorded. It also includes video diaries, written reflections, graphic artworks, poetry, student work. And as far as artifacts, there are kind of photographs that have been taken of different objects that are emblematic of this time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, tell me about that.

TUMMINO: There's graffiti that's on the outside of buildings. There's, you know, photographs of masks that have been left in puddles on the ground, things like that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's your favorite item?

TUMMINO: One of the entries that stood out to me was a video diary of a Queens College student named Dan Rivera (ph). He is 25 years old. He's a double major in history and education. And he's been on dialysis for kidney failure every other day since 2018. So in his video diary, he's talking about what it's like to continue this treatment during COVID-19, you know, his fears of potentially contracting the virus and his increased risk of fatality and also his worries about passing it on, you know, having to go into the center to get dialysis and potentially passing it on to other elderly people, since he is the youngest person at this facility.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

DAN RIVERA: And it's more mentally taxing than anything else. Now, on top of all the school work, on top of the papers, on top of the assignments, that extra level of stress is not the best.

TUMMINO: And just how this adds, like, a whole huge layer of stress on top of his regular schoolwork, which is already challenging.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to ask you to sort of put your archivist hat on and tell me what you think we'll be looking back on 50 years from now at this moment. And when they look at what you have assembled, what do you think historians and archivists will gather from that?

TUMMINO: I think one thing that people will take away is how unprepared we were at the beginning of the pandemic and how much fear and confusion that there was, especially in the early days. I also think that people will be able to reconstruct a sort of a state of mind of what it actually felt like to be a part of this period. Those personal experiences of what it really felt like day-to-day are going to be present in these contributions in ways that just summaries or statistics can't tell.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Annie Tummino, head of special collections and archives at Queens College Library. Thank you very much.

TUMMINO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.