For many of us, the past two months have been anything but normal. At Wofford, we’ve all had to adjust to doing our jobs away from campus, whether that’s teaching, helping students with research questions or, in my case, figuring out how to be an archivist when I don’t have regular access to the physical collection. So, rather than share a story about the past, I want to talk about living through history, how archivists try to collect and document those experiences, and what you might do yourself during these very unusual days.
History happens on ordinary days, and most of the time, it happens unexpectedly. In some cases, an event happens that changes the world between breakfast and dinner, and in other cases, history unfolds over days and weeks and can have just as profound an effect on us. That’s what we’re going through now, but part of the challenge with living through history is that we don’t know the end of the story because it hasn’t happened yet. I’ve pointed out to students in my History 102 classes when I talk about the outbreak of World War II in 1939 that we have the advantage of hindsight. The British didn’t know in the dark days of 1940 how the war was going to turn out, while we know how that story ends. Our knowledge affects how we see those events, whereas they had to live with the uncertainty. So today, we are living with uncertainty.
People probably think about archivists (and historians) as people who deal with the past. That’s true — part of what I do is to maintain the records of Wofford’s past so that people today can appreciate where we’ve been, and I help people — students, administrators, faculty, alumni — learn more about history. However, archivists have to look forward as well, for if we don’t collect the records of today, then researchers in the future won’t have any way to understand what we are going through right now. I’ve gotten questions about how Wofford experienced the 1918 influenza epidemic, and I’m trying to research that, but it would be easier if people then had kept better records.
So, I have to be aware that we are making history right now, and make sure that it gets documented. That might mean keeping track of messages that go to campus. It might mean collecting news articles and other documents. It might involve asking others to be sure they are keeping good records and then collecting those records from them later. It might even mean making a more intentional act, like keeping a journal.
So, I decided, actually at my mom’s suggestion, to start keeping a journal in March. I try to take a few minutes each evening to write (or in my case, dictate to my iPad) a few memories of the day. I don’t know what I’ll do with it in the end, but it might become part of my own file in the archives so that down the line some future researcher will be able to see a little of what went on in Spartanburg and at Wofford during the spring of 2020. That’s how historians a century from now will piece together what this experience was like — by reading the words of several people who kept records.
So, what can you do? You can keep a journal as well. Write about what happened today, what your own experience was, how unusual everything seemed. Even mundane thoughts, added to those of others, might be able to paint a picture of life for someone in the future. Beyond writing, take time to think and recognize what an unusual time this is. I certainly have never worked from home for two months before, and I’ve never tried to figure out how to teach a class without seeing my students face to face. You are certainly doing things differently now, so reflect on that. I know that clergy are trying to figure out how to do ministry without seeing their congregations. What’s that like for you?
Another thing to consider is, how will this change us as individuals, communities and a nation? What’s going to be different in the future because of this experience? Take some time to think, reflect and maybe write some history of your own.
By Dr. Phillip Stone ’94, College archivist