A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

A teacher places the finishing touches on the welcome sign at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School which is part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) during the COVID-19 pandemic in Scarborough, Ont., on Sept. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Hindsight 2020: How do you preserve a year many Canadians would rather forget?

Figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges

Canadians may wish to forget the year 2020 ever happened, but across the country, museums and archives are working furiously to ensure a full record of the COVID-19 pandemic is in place.

“If it happens 50 years from now, again, we want to be able to have information to give the perspective of the challenges,” said Sylvain Belanger, a director general at Library and Archives Canada.

But figuring out how to preserve the story of the pandemic poses a series of challenges.

One is the ephemeral nature of where so much of people’s experiences are taking place: the internet. Social media posts come and go, news headlines change hourly, and new sources of information and disinformation appear or disappear, Belanger said.

At Library and Archives Canada, a team of six people hoover up as much of the official record as possible. The amount of data they’ve currently collected is the equivalent to the data a person would use up if they streamed more than 2,000 movies on Netflix.

At the Canadian Museum of History, and similar institutions, the work is broader.

Capturing the language of the pandemic is one part: words like “social distancing,” the lockdown cocktail known as the “quarantini” and the “you’re on mute” uttered in nearly every single video conference call.

Saving photos and videos is another element, whether it is Canadian musicians streaming impromptu concerts from their living rooms, teachers wearing masks in the classroom, soldiers entering long-term care homes or portraits of what isolation looks like in the Northwest Territories.

Then there are the physical artifacts: homemade masks, crafts made from toilet paper rolls, colourful rocks painted by children to be strewn along paths, even the little sticky signs on sidewalks asking people to keep their distance.

What among those will become as iconic to the pandemic as the photo of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square at the end of the Second World War remains to be seen, said Dean Oliver, the museum’s director of research.

Knowing what to collect and how much of it evolves over time, Oliver said.

“There isn’t a checklist that says here’s the magic number,” he said.

Documenting the pandemic is difficult because Canadians are still living through it, said Anthony Wilson-Smith, president and CEO of Historica Canada, which among other things runs “The Memory Project” to record the stories of war veterans.

“It’ll take awhile for people to come out the other end, much like post-traumatic stress disorder, where, when it’s too immediate, you can’t talk about it at all,” he said.

But he said that what people will want to know decades from now is what they ask veterans today: how did you feel? What was it like?

Oliver suggests Canadians who want to make a record document those feelings.

“Many of the other aspects of your experience — where you moved, what you bought, your tax return, your census record — the future historian or your descendant will be able to get at in an impersonal way,” he said.

“But they will not be able to see you and feel you and understand how you saw and felt unless you tell them.”

One emerging issue is figuring out how to reflect the experiences of those whose lives have been disproportionately impacted, including racialized communities and women.

“There are a lot of data sets, but the voice of women is missing in numeric data sets,” said Yoo Young Lee, the interim head of information technology at the University of Ottawa, who also works on digital initiatives for the school’s library.

“We need the stories.”

She and her colleagues have launched an archive specific to women’s experiences, but it is a slow process. One challenge is that a reliance on using what people post online means those who don’t have access or choose not to use social media are missed.

The other reality, said Michelle Gewurtz, supervisor of arts and culture at the Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives, is that people tend to only post the lighthearted moments online.

Her region, just outside Toronto, is currently in the midst of second lockdown, due to a rise in cases.

There, multi-generational families are locked down in cramped quarters, and getting a sense of what that looks and feels like is difficult, she said.

It’s become clear, she and others said, that what initially began as a project to document COVID-19 in the year 2020 will stretch far beyond.

“This isn’t going away.”

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Best of 2020

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

(Black Press file photo)
Charges laid against two suspects in pre-Christmas home invasion

An 88-year-old woman was hospitalized after being bear-sprayed in the face Dec. 18, 2020

Liam and Tyler Spaans, (L-R), are two of the current lifeguards at the Houston Leisure Facility. (Houston Leisure Services file photo)
Leisure facility anticipates need for lifeguards

Has been challenged in the past

Residents rank snow removal as a high priority within District boundaries. (Houston Today file photo)
Road work and snow removal ranked as important in citizen survey

But residents also expressed dissatisfaction with each

The Topley Fire department will be using the funding towards new gear. (File photo)
Topley Fire Protection Society gets a $100,000 grant

Society among 132 recepients of the province’s Community Gaming Grant

Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.'s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
456 new COVID-19 cases in B.C., 2 deaths

Since January 2020, 78,278 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in B.C.

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)
Vaccinating essential workers before seniors in B.C. could save lives: experts

A new study says the switch could also save up to $230 million in provincial health-care costs

The late Michael Gregory, 57, is accused of sexually exploiting six junior high students between 1999 and 2005. (Pixabay)
Former Alberta teacher accused of sexually assaulting students found dead in B.C.

Mounties say Michael Gregory’s death has been deemed ‘non-suspicious’

According to a new poll, a majority of Canadians want to see illicit drugs decriminalized. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Majority of Canadians think it’s high time to decriminalize illicit drugs: poll

More than two-times the B.C. residents know someone who died from an overdose compared to rest of Canada

Photograph By @KAYLAXANDERSON
VIDEO: Lynx grabs lunch in Kamloops

A lynx surprises a group of ducks and picks one off for lunch

(Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. residents can reserve provincial camp sites starting March 8

B.C. residents get priority access to camping reservations in province

Two women were arrested in Nanaimo for refusing to wear masks and causing disturbance on a BC Ferries vessel. (File photo)
B.C. ferry passengers arrested and fined for disturbance, refusing to wear masks

Police said woman threatened their pensions in Feb. 21 incident aboard Nanaimo-bound boat

When his owner had knee surgery, Kevin, 2, was able to continue to go for walks thanks to volunteers from Elder Dog Canada. (Contributed photo)
B.C. woman has nothing but praise for Elder Dog Canada

National organization has a fleet of volunteer walkers ready, but needs more clients to serve

Most Read