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Austin History Center chronicles the pandemic

Tuesday, May 26, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

The Austin History Center is a treasure trove of posters, books, photographs, and records from across the city’s history. And while the center is currently shuttered due to Covid-19, it is still doing the work of collecting records of the pandemic and documenting how Austin residents are living through it.

“We recognize that this is an unprecedented period of hardship and loss for so many in Austin,” says the text on the center’s Covid-19 web page. “Longtime Austin businesses are shutting their doors for the first time, signature community events have been canceled, and essential city systems have been strained and ever-changing.”

But Austinites are still connecting and creative even in these difficult times. That’s why the center is asking residents to document their pandemic experiences and share them, either through a journal, video blog, podcast, paintings or any other medium in which one can document personal experiences.

Participants can upload submissions through a portal on the center’s website. The project isn’t accepting paper materials just yet, but will accept digital copies now and the originals once it resumes normal business hours.

“We’ve been really surprised and excited about the level of engagement that we’ve had since the project started,” said Ayshea Khan, Asian American community archivist for the Austin History Center.

The project was initially conceived by Latinx community archivist Marina Islas, who asked her online community a simple question: We are living through a historic moment – how is it affecting your life? The answers came pouring in.

“The Austin History Center physical building might still be closed, but we’re very much working hard behind the scenes to ensure that this moment of history isn’t forgotten,” Khan said. “To date, we’ve received 213 unique donations from various community members in Austin.”

So far, the majority of donations have been reflections on how people are feeling day to day in quarantine. The center has received photographs and scanned copies of journals, screenshots of Zoom birthday parties, and submissions from professional photographers and videographers.

“Photographers and filmmakers are sending in images of how the Austin landscape has changed,” Khan said. “Empty streets downtown, shuttered. Business buildings with inspiring graffiti on the walls. We even got a submission of a field recording of just how the Austin soundscape has changed. We’ve had moments where things seem a lot quieter in parts of downtown.”

As the University of Texas and Austin Independent School District finish up their digital semesters, they’ve partnered with the center to chronicle education in pandemic.

“We’ve received a lot of written reflections, as well as photographs, from students talking about the hard transition of migrating to online classes, feeling like their college experience has been cut short, or being fearful of their families contracting the virus,” Khan said.

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