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Cultural Organizations Document Vermonters' Stories in Coronavirus Era

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Photo submitted to the Vermont Historical Society's COVID-19 Archive in which scarecrows demonstrate proper social distancing in a Montpelier yard
  • Photo submitted to the Vermont Historical Society's COVID-19 Archive in which scarecrows demonstrate proper social distancing in a Montpelier yard

How will Vermonters remember the coronavirus era? In past crises, Green Mountain State cultural organizations have stepped up to create historical records of Vermonters' experiences. The Vermont Folklife Center, for example, began offering story circles as a way for folks to process the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. The center recorded and archived many of these stories for posterity. During World War II, Norwich University preserved letters from students and alumni serving abroad. The Vermont Historical Society even has an archive of items from the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Now, several local entities are working to document Vermonters' lives and experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though their work shares some common threads, each organization has a unique angle on assembling accounts from Green Mountain State residents.

For the Vermont Folklife Center, the act of listening is just as important as telling one's story; that's at the heart of Listening in Place, the Middlebury-based organization's COVID-19 response project.

Listening in Place is a three-pronged endeavor. For the first element, VFC is creating a crowdsourced sound archive composed of audio recordings. These might be interviews or sounds from daily life, such as the noises made during a meal or found on a walk outdoors.

A second element is the Show Us Your Masks! initiative, for which VFC is requesting images of homemade protective masks.

Photos submitted to Show Us Your Masks!, part of a Vermont Folklife Center project
  • Photos submitted to Show Us Your Masks!, part of a Vermont Folklife Center project

Finally, VFC has taken the in-person story circle format to the web. Hosted via videoconference, virtual story circles are moderated opportunities for Vermonters to share their experiences — and listen to those of others. To retain a sense of intimacy, the story circles are limited to six to eight participants, each of whom may grant VFC permission to add their portion of the recording to the sound archive.

As of an April 15 phone interview with Seven Days, VFC education and media specialist Mary Wesley said the center had held just one virtual story circle and received fewer than 10 audio submissions. Though they were few, submissions contained quality content.

"I do think that there is a lot of connection and relationship building happening," Wesley said, "and I feel like that's coming through in the recordings and the stories themselves that I'm hearing, but also the fact of people being willing to jump onto another videoconference for the express purpose of listening."

A second virtual storytelling circle on April 16 included five participants, along with facilitators Wesley and VFC executive director Kathleen Haughey. Among the participants were a college student, two journalists, a librarian and an art educator. With the help of prompts, folks shared thoughts on newfound challenges (missing friends and family), silver linings (time for creative projects), and what they've gone through during the past few weeks, such as returning home early from studying abroad, learning to homeschool children and driving on eerily empty highways.

Future circles are scheduled for April 30 and May 2. Vermonters can stay up to date on upcoming virtual story circles and learn more about Listening in Place at vermontfolklifecenter.org.

The Vermont Historical Society is also relying on crowdsourced material to create its COVID-19 Archive. According to the VHS website, its collection will be a resource for future researchers studying the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on life in Vermont in 2020. It includes original photos, stories, poems and videos documenting life in the state during the health crisis.

Eventually, wrote VHS librarian Paul Carnahan in an email to Seven Days, the society will start collecting physical artifacts. "We definitely want real signs and homemade masks in addition to pictures of signs and masks," he wrote, "but it is a little early to ask for those."

Carnahan also noted that 92 items were already in the digital archive as of April 17. A visit to website covid-19.digitalvermont.org shows everything from an oil painting created by a Lamoille County resident in quarantine to an email message communicating the closure of the Weston Town Clerk and Treasurer's Office to screenshots of virtual work meetings.

Photos appear to be the most commonly submitted items. One shared on the site shows a seder table set with wine, candles and a laptop computer for dining with relatives through the web. Another captures two scarecrows demonstrating proper social distancing in a Montpelier yard. Submissions are accepted and posted at covid-19.ditigalvermont.org.

Taking an academic angle, Norwich University in Northfield is sharing accounts through a new initiative called Perspectives Project: COVID-19. Conceived by assistant professor Michael Thunberg, the project offers information and reflections on the virus and its implications from scholars across various disciplines.

"I saw this as kind of a proactive way to show both students and the rest of the outside world that we are this intellectually engaged community that can take the thing that we're learning in the classroom and connect it to things that are going on in the real world," said Thunberg in a video interview with Seven Days.

To that end, Thunberg is compiling essays and articles written by faculty and staff, aiming to publish one per day for the duration of Gov. Phil Scott's stay-at-home order, now in effect until May 15. (Thunberg hopes to prolong the project if the order is extended.)

Pieces from Thunberg's project have been published daily since April 7 on Voices From the Hill, a new online platform developed by the university's communications office. The works examine the virus through the lenses of mathematics, geography, history, engineering, politics and other disciplines, prompting members of the academic community and readers at large to think about the pandemic in new ways.

Additionally, in a March 31 video address to the Norwich University community, president Richard W. Schneider asked students and alumni to write letters to the university, just as folks did during WWII. "Tell us what you're doing, how you're surviving through this crisis. What things are you doing to help your family or your community?" he asked in the video. "Because I want [the letters] there for the students 50 or 100 years from now when we're celebrating our 300th birthday, so they can read what you did."

Digital submissions can be sent to archives@norwich.edu. Physical documents should be mailed to the Norwich University Archives, Kreitzberg Library, at 158 Harmon Drive in Northfield.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Story Time | Cultural organizations document Vermonters' experiences in the coronavirus era"

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