‘Preserving as Much as We Can’ The Washington and Lee University library is preserving documents relating to COVID-19 and diversity and inclusion.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re trying to capture fish with a busted net. Lots of stuff gets out and it’s not going to be perfect. We can’t get everything. But we’re preserving as much as we can.”
~ Assistant Professor and Digital Scholarship Librarian Paula Kiser
As Washington and Lee University continues its community-wide discussion of names, symbols, and diversity and inclusion while battling the COVID-19 pandemic, campus historians have begun a far-reaching project to collect communications relating to both sets of events.
The initiative is the brainchild of five staff members: Tom Camden ’76, associate professor and head of Special Collections; Lynn Rainville, the inaugural director of institutional history; Paula Kiser, assistant professor and digital scholarship librarian; K.T. Vaughan, the university librarian; and Scott Dittman, who was university registrar when the project began.
Members of the team came up with the idea separately, then found each other. “Lynn Rainville contacted me and said, ‘So, Tom, how did the school respond to the flu epidemic of 1917–1918?’” Camden explained. He went digging, but the records were thin. It wasn’t even clear whether W&L had closed.
Hoping to avoid that situation in the future, Camden got in touch with Kiser and Vaughan, who had already been discussing preserving communications with Dittman. “The moment we realized what was happening,” Kiser said, “our brains immediately went to, ‘We need to save this.’” The team had a similar realization about the discussion of diversity and inclusion on campus.
They scheduled a meeting with university administrators to ask them to preserve records related to both ongoing situations. “Not just the emails that are getting sent out,” Kiser said, “but the meeting minutes.” They hope to preserve the working documents that show how decisions are made: what gets included, what gets left out, and how communications change over time.
Once, that would have meant gathering boxes filled with memos, printouts and handwritten reports. But today, most communications happen electronically. “So for this particular historic phase,” Camden said, “we were asking for permission to harvest the electronic files that they had accumulated.”
Information about diversity and inclusion at W&L has been particularly difficult to catalog. Although a wealth of personal histories, letters, statements and calls to action are being shared online, much of that is happening on social media sites that are difficult to archive. Kiser uses specialized software to capture the content on regular websites, but it doesn’t always work for services like Instagram and Facebook. She is, however, keeping a list of accounts that share information publicly, and she hopes to overcome the technical hurdles in storing it.
Once the communications are collected, Kiser and Camden will make them easier to search by appending metadata. “Who wrote it?” Kiser offered as an example. “What is it called? What is the description of the item?” They’ll add tags like “pandemic” and “COVID-19,” hoping to anticipate the interests of future researchers.
“If we front-load the labor,” Kiser explained, “it makes it easier for researchers to find.”
Their goal is to provide sources for future students, alumni and researchers. “Hot-button issues” of institutional history, Camden explained, tend to interest W&L students most. Over the past five years, he’s seen an explosion of student research projects relating to coeducation and integration. “That’s what our student body wants to know about. And we have an obligation to document those kinds of things.”
Kiser anticipates the project will go on for a long time, both for COVID-19 and for the conversation around diversity and inclusion. “We haven’t even hit the climax of these stories, and then we need to see what happens next. We need to keep all of these documents together for the next person who’s writing the history of W&L, and to make sure that the students of color on campus see that their stories are as important as everybody else’s.”
To collect as much detail as possible, Kiser and Camden are creating a questionnaire to send to students next semester. “We want to capture the social history in a way that is very open and transparent,” Kiser said. They plan to submit the questionnaire to the university’s institutional review board, the same group which approves faculty and student research projects, to ensure they’re doing a thorough job.
“Sometimes,” Kiser said, “it feels like you’re trying to capture fish with a busted net. Lots of stuff gets out and it’s not going to be perfect. We can’t get everything. But we’re preserving as much as we can.”