The first line of a public health notice from 1918 eerily resonates in today’s world, as parallels have been drawn between the Spanish influenza and the modern coronavirus. Almost exactly 100 years apart, both outbreaks reached pandemic status and created international crises.
According to University Archivist Alesha Shumar, the desire to know more about both outbreaks led to the creation of a new initiative to archive the UT campus response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It started out from doing research on the 1918 Spanish flu and how that affected the university,” Shumar said. “When [coronavirus] started coming to the United States, people began doing some research asking ‘how did the university respond, way back in 1918?’ and we just did not have a whole lot of records from that time.”
Shumar said that the campus environment in 1918 was admittedly much different from today, given the stress of the ongoing World War I.
“There were less students on campus, a lot of the men were in training camp or away at war, there was already wartime rations happening, so it was kind of a different environment,” Shumar said.
While there weren’t many records of the Spanish flu pandemic, also known as H1N1, in total, according to Shumar there were even less on the student response to the influenza outbreak that hit East Tennessee in the fall of 1918. Thus, the inspiration to create a record of the current response to COVID-19 was to ensure that future historians have a complete perspective of the how it affected the university.
Of the items UT Libraries was able to find concerning the Spanish influenza pandemic, Shumar said that many were news articles about not being allowed to congregate downtown, as well as a public health notice from Sevierville that was particularly interesting.
“We found a public notice from Sevierville saying almost the exact same things as the recommendations of washing your hands, staying away from others that may have been exposed to the flu and staying home,” Shumar said. “They didn’t close schools, but they did say ‘if anybody is sick in public make sure to stay home, and if you are sick call your doctor before going in.’”
Over the next year, UT archivists will be accepting submissions from faculty and students detailing how life has changed during the pandemic. Items may include videos, photos, music, poems, essays, works of art, journals and both handwritten or typed diaries. Since the university is currently online-only, students who want to contribute must fill out a form to be contacted or answer a short questionnaire to leave their thoughts.
As for when the university archives are physically open again, University Archives Assistant Becky Becker said that students and faculty can bring their submissions to the Betsy B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives office on the first floor of Hodges Library.
“As far as when, the university is still online-only through the summer and they are still trying to figure out what we’ll be doing for the fall,” Becker said. “We’ll accept the physical material donations when Hodges Library’s building is open again.”
Students with questions about accepted donations are advised to email firstname.lastname@example.org.