The time we’re living through will one day become history. This is always true, of course, but the coronavirus pandemic has, perhaps more than any other event in living memory, made people hyperaware that their present will be remembered in the future. And this new, strange sensation has compelled many to capture the moment for posterity.
The urge hit Janis Whitlock, a research scientist at Cornell University, when she was walking outside in early March. She was reading news about Italian cities going into lockdown and started recording herself, speaking her thoughts into her phone. “I was thinking I would like to somehow chronicle these moments because I know they are history in the making—deep, deep stuff,” she said in that first voice memo from March 9. “So this is my start. I don’t know if I’ll do it every day, but I’m going to try to do it as much as I can, just so some flavor of this time is captured.”
In the following weeks, many American cities issued stay-at-home orders, patients flooded hospitals, and colleges and universities, including Cornell, abruptly closed. Students in Whitlock’s Translational Research class scattered across the globe. She wanted to give her students an assignment that would allow them to not only practice data analysis, but also capture their pandemic life. Journaling was the answer.
“This is a pivotal moment in history,” Whitlock told me. “We’re in it right now. We have an opportunity to chronicle it.” She’s referring not only to the pandemic, but also to the Black Lives Matter protests, accelerating global warming, and the upcoming presidential election. The fear—and thrill—of recognizing history as it’s occurring inspired Whitlock to expand her classroom assignment into a global project called “Telling Our Stories in the Age of COVID-19.” Since the project launched online in March, more than 500 people in more than 30 countries have signed up and answered journal prompts that Whitlock and her team email to participants. Though responses have declined as the pandemic has drawn on, Whitlock said she still gets one or two new entries each day. She plans to compile these collective experiences into a “snapshot” of pandemic life around the world.
Across the United States, researchers like Whitlock at universities, historical societies, and local publications have started collecting physical and digital journal entries. They are a rich source for historical records, providing unfiltered glimpses into the minds of ordinary people. During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, media outlets (including The Atlantic) examined journals from the 1918 influenza pandemic to get a sense of how people’s lives were upended during a similar crisis. These diaries describe moments of daily life, such as a teenager’s joy over school being canceled or a patient drinking castor oil to treat painful symptoms. Diaries from the coronavirus era will also help preserve details that may fade from public memory over time.
Scholars rely on diaries like these and other primary sources—newspapers, documents, and artifacts that provide firsthand accounts of an event—to construct historical narratives. This kind of archival work often happens many years after an event has passed, but historians are now proactively seeking out writing and photos from a diverse array of Americans. The New York Times recently reported that several museums are already collecting mementos and artifacts from this year to prepare for future exhibitions on the pandemic and protests.
But institutions aren’t the only ones working to preserve pandemic journals. In May, Jamie Halper, a recent Harvard graduate, started an online archive for students at her hometown high school in Minneapolis. Halper had noticed that several colleges, including her own, were asking students to donate their journals, and she wanted a place to preserve the voices of high schoolers, too. She worked with a teacher at her alma mater and asked students to submit writing, photos, and artwork. Their journals, Halper told me, contained common experiences, such as the difficulties of remote learning and the awkwardness of wearing masks. (She collected submissions before George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests, so these events weren’t mentioned in entries.) Although the entries have been published on a website that Halper set up, she hopes to house them with a state or university archive in the future. Halper said that journaling allowed students to “work through their thoughts, and also know that someone in the future can look back and hear what they have to say.”
The dual nature of journaling—as a marker of the present and a remnant of the past—has attracted many writers to the practice of chronicling their pandemic days. “I thought it would be cool to have something written down for my kids later on, when they ask me what happened in 2020 during the coronavirus,” Leo Ramirez, a 19-year-old in El Paso, Texas, told me. Hannah Kuo, a 24-year-old nurse in Columbus, Ohio, initially wrote entries after her hospital shifts to track changes in the ways “we treat other people, and how hospitals [form] policies and procedures.” But after a month, Kuo stopped. She told me that her journal entries started to look the same, and she found other activities, such as exercising, to help alleviate stress. Still, she is glad to have a snapshot of her first month as a health-care worker during the pandemic.
Others approach their diary less as a record for the future, and more as a tool to help them live through the present. Justyn Williams, a 29-year-old actor in Los Angeles, hadn’t journaled since 2015, but when he moved in with his mom and found himself out of work, he decided to pull out a notebook and pen. He described journaling as a way to “check in with an invisible therapist” and told me he now writes twice a day for his mental health. As a Black man, he said that the George Floyd protests have weighed heavily on him, in addition to the ambient stress of the pandemic. Williams said that on paper, he’s able to process difficult emotions while also capturing happy memories. He added that journaling “brings a very real tangibility to being able to look back and see what was happening on a day, or what I was thinking” during a certain part of his life.
Across the country, in Dutchess County, New York, 27-year-old Angela DePalma has also discovered a new appreciation for journaling. “I used to just journal about what happened in my day-to-day life,” she told me. “But since we can’t go anywhere, or see anybody, I’ve found that my journal entries have been getting longer because I’ve been reflecting inward.” Writing has been a source of comfort, especially when her grandmother got the coronavirus (she has since recovered). And it’s helped her better understand her life and what she wants from it. Reading over her entries, DePalma noticed that they consistently captured unhappiness and stress from work. So she decided to quit her job. And she’s begun to talk more openly about racism and her own privilege with friends and family. DePalma told me that she wouldn’t have had these conversations with other people, or herself, before she started reflecting regularly in her journal.
For now, writing these diaries is a comfort to their authors. Future generations may use them to understand what daily life was like during the pandemic—what Americans’ mask-wearing habits were, how much (and how safely) people socialized, or how they entertained themselves at home. These journals will provide history with the intimate details that make it come alive, and show us that even the most world-shattering events are made up of precious, individual lives.