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

Aldergrove Community Secondary. (Aldergrove Star files)
Noel Booth, Douglas Park, RE Mountain, and Aldergrove Secondary see positive COVID tests

As of Monday, May 10, 18 schools are currently on the Fraser Health exposure list

Email your cooking questions to Chef Dez at dez@chefdez.com.
ON COOKING: Chef Dez does parsley pesto

Pesto traditionally has fresh basil but it can also be made with another fresh herb

Langley’s Madison Sweeney a 5’8” forward who began her career playing for Walnut Grove Secondary, has signed with the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) Cascades women’s soccer team. (Special to Langley Advance Times)
Langley’s Madison Sweeney signs with UFV Cascades soccer team

UFV ‘checks all the boxes’ for former Walnut Grove player

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko (35) makes a save on Winnipeg Jets’ Nate Thompson (11) during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Vancouver Canucks see NHL playoff hopes dashed despite 3-1 win over Winnipeg

Montreal Canadiens earn final North Division post-season spot

Elias Pettersson and the Vancouver Canucks drew a large crowd to the Abbotsford Centre in 2019. Canucks management hopes the crowds return for the planned AHL team this fall, and early returns are positive. (John Morrow/Abbotsford News)
Canucks: ‘Incredible’ early interest for Abbotsford AHL tickets

Team has had a strong response to both e-mail information and priority ticket lists

The B.C. legislature went from 85 seats to 87 before the 2017 election, causing a reorganization with curved rows and new desks squeezed in at the back. The next electoral boundary review could see another six seats added. (Black Press files)
B.C. election law could add six seats, remove rural protection

North, Kootenays could lose seats as cities gain more

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the shooting of an Indigenous woman in the Ucluelet First Nation community of Hitacu. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation wants ‘massive change’ after its 3rd police shooting in less than a year

Nuu-chah-nulth woman recovering from gunshot wounds in weekend incident near Ucluelet

Nurse Gurinder Rai, left, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Maria Yule at a Fraser Health drive-thru vaccination site, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The site is open for vaccinations 11 hours per day to those who have pre-booked an appointment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID vaccine bookings to open for adults 40+, or 18+ in hotspots, across B.C.

Only people who have registered will get their alert to book

Dr. Victoria Lee, CEO of Fraser Health, hosts an update on efforts to contain B.C.’s COVID-19 transmission in Surrey and the Fraser Valley and protect hospitals in the Lower Mainland, May 6, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate slowing, 20 more people die

Deaths include two people in their 40s, two in their 50s

Most Read