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Historical societies gather materials so future generations can understand pandemic

  • Nancy Cressman, of Norwich, Vt., looks over some of the panels she has painted during the pandemic at her home on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Cressman is amongst those who have made pandemic-related contributions to historical societies, a reflection of these times for their archives. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Panels painted by Nancy Cressman, of Norwich, Vt. Cressman has been documenting her experience of the coronavirus crisis. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nancy Cressman, of Norwich, Vt., on Wednesday, June, 3, 2020. Cressman has been painting a panel every day, documenting her experience of the coronavirus crisis. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/7/2020 9:21:54 PM
Modified: 6/7/2020 9:21:50 PM

NORWICH — Early on in the novel coronavirus outbreak, Sarah Rooker set out to co-write a piece on the last pandemic to shut down big parts of the Upper Valley, the nation and the world.

But Rooker, director of the Norwich Historical Society, found that there wasn’t a lot of information about how the 1918 flu pandemic affected Norwich. Other than a handful of short items in the Hanover Gazette, accounts of how town residents weathered that extraordinary time were hard to come by.

If another pandemic comes along in the decades to come, people will find plenty of information about the current one in the historical society’s files. The society is already collecting materials from town residents.

“I feel like we have a real duty as a historical society to collect from this time,” Rooker said this week. “It’s a real watershed moment.”

In the past, historical societies and archives have gathered materials after events were long over, something they still do. In recent years, though, they’ve begun to gather materials as events are unfolding, in the hope of developing a more complete picture of what life was like at key points.

“I don’t think it’s been so explicit before,” said Sarah Galligan, library director at the New Hampshire Historical Society. The society collects items from the New Hampshire primary and other significant events, but this is of a different magnitude.

“We haven’t asked anyone for anything in quite this way, but I don’t think we’ve had anything quite this life-changing,” Galligan said.

So far, the New Hampshire society has collected mostly photographs and some written reflections. People have made recommendations, such as recordings of the state Supreme Court’s first-ever remote arguments, which took place over the web conferencing platform Zoom. A company has offered its weekly email correspondence to employees.

In general, Galligan said, the society is encouraging people to write down their observations and is advising local historical societies about how to document the COVID-19 era.

Much of that work is digital, at the moment. The New Hampshire Historical Society is doing much of its work remotely. Galligan spoke on the phone from home. “There are materials that are waiting to be processed,” she said. Getting those items catalogued, photographed or scanned and put online will take a while. More than 75% of the historical society’s collections are available online, she said.

In Norwich, the collecting has so far been mostly digital. Volunteers have been clipping local news stories, photographing signage around town and copying posts off the town listserv into an online folder. Rooker also has set up a questionnaire that residents can fill out online and a page of writing prompts to accompany a blank journal purchased from the Norwich Bookstore.

Norwich resident Nancy Cressman has filled out the questionnaire, but she has also sent photographs of the series of daily watercolor paintings she has made to document vignettes from her life during the coronavirus, images of spray bottles of disinfectant and birds spotted in her yard while she was stuck at home. “I think it’s a really great idea that the historical society is taking responsibility for gathering people’s experiences,” she said.

“We’re definitely going to end up with a phenomenal collection,” Rooker said.

Rooker also has worked with fourth-grade students at Marion Cross School to collect their impressions as a sort of digital time capsule. “They’re really reflective,” she said. “These kids have been really impacted.”

Other Upper Valley historical societies have begun collecting, too. Rooker, who as a paid employee of a local historical society is a rare species, has fielded an inquiry from the Orford Historical Society about gathering materials.

And the Strafford Historical Society is interviewing residents and taking photographs, said society member Susan Cloke. She has begun with plans to interview selectboard members, farmers, business owners and other residents. 

“We’re planning to put together a book showing what life was like when this happened and how people responded to it,” Cloke said. The society put out a book about the town’s experiences during and after Tropical Storm Irene struck Vermont in late August 2011.

Everything but the post office and Coburns’ General Store has been closed down in Strafford, Cloke said. But people have looked after each other. “I think (the book) will really illuminate the quality of the town,” she said.

While it is collecting written accounts, the New Hampshire Historical Society also expects to gather artifacts, Galligan said. It has recently acquired more letters written by Franklin Pierce, a hazmat suit from the Seabrook nuclear power plant and documents related to the Northern Pass power line proposal. 

There are challenges to gathering material while events are still going on, Rooker said. “It’s hard to know you’re gathering the right things,” she said.

But the wider range of material, collected from a broader cross-section of people, is likely to provide a better picture than the society has been able to collect of other events, when collecting was more haphazard. 

“We’re definitely going to have more diverse stories and reflections than we had from 1918,” Rooker said. “My hope is that some reporter in the future or some historian will have a lot of material to sift through.”

Eventually, the Norwich Historical Society might want to exhibit some of the materials it collects, but it might lend itself to other forms, perhaps a play, Rooker suggested.

Whatever shape the material takes, that day is a ways off. “I see this as a long-term project,” Rooker said. “As we all learned from 1918, there’s more to come.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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