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UW-Eau Claire's COVID-19 archiving project earns Wisconsin Historical Society award

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Blugolds (from left) Breida Torres Berumen, Lucy Hobbs and Claire Ganschow are capturing and preserving stories shared by people in western Wisconsin about what life has been like during COVID-19. The project is being recognized by the Wisconsin Historical Society for its important contributions to the region and state. (Submitted photo)

A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire-led project that captures and preserves COVID-19 stories and artifacts from the campus and surrounding communities is being honored by the Wisconsin Historical Society for its innovation and value to the region.

The “Chippewa Valley COVID-19 Archiving Project,” a collaboration among the UW-Eau Claire public history program, McIntyre Library and the Chippewa Valley Museum, is the recipient of the Wisconsin Historical Society’s 2021 Governor’s Award for Archival Innovation.

The rapid-response COVID-19 collecting project focuses on collecting, preserving and making accessible oral histories, personal reflections, webpages, photographs or other digital artifacts and records relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects in western Wisconsin. Items in the archive are crowdsourced or donated from the public, and collected and curated by UW-Eau Claire students and the project's main partners.

“The ‘Chippewa Valley COVID-19 Archiving Project’ demonstrates an innovative, modern, approach to collecting and sharing history,” says Christian Overland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director and CEO for the Wisconsin Historical Society. “This important work preserves the stories of how the pandemic is impacting the Chippewa Valley community so that future generations can better understand this transformational era in history.”

The board of curators, the Wisconsin Historical Society’s governing body, annually recognizes individuals and organizations for exceptional work consistent with the society’s mission and vision. The Governor’s Award for Archival Innovation honors individuals, programs or organizations that successfully experiment with new ways to demonstrate the significance or relevance of historical records for understanding the past, or that use historical records to reach new audiences.

“This innovative and collaborative project successfully engaged new audiences and brought awareness to the importance of archival work,” the Wisconsin Historical Society stated when announcing the award.

UW-Eau Claire’s McIntyre Library special collections and archives developed the project's infrastructure. UW-Eau Claire public history students have worked since the beginning of the pandemic to conduct and transcribe oral history interviews and to complete the work of digital curation to archive interviews on the site and make them publicly available. The Chippewa Valley Museum has helped with project promotion and engaged participants to solicit content for the archive.

The Wisconsin Historical Society is honoring an archive project coordinated by Greg Kocken (upper left), Dr. Cheryl Jiménez Frei (upper right) and Jodi Kiffmeyer (bottom), an initiative that is capturing and preserving COVID-19 stories and artifacts.

The Wisconsin Historical Society is honoring an archive project coordinated by Greg Kocken (upper left), Dr. Cheryl Jiménez Frei (upper right) and Jodi Kiffmeyer (bottom), an initiative that is capturing and preserving COVID-19 stories and artifacts.

“We are honored to be recognized for a project that is possible because of the creative thinking and hard work of UW-Eau Claire faculty and students, and staff from the Chippewa Valley Museum,” says Greg Kocken, the university’s archivist. “Ultimately, this award is shared by all of us as the key partners in this project. Without support from UW-Eau Claire’s public history program and the Chippewa Valley Museum, the project would not have been as successful. I’m thrilled this award recognizes all three project partners.”

When COVID-19 upended the world in spring 2020, Kocken began work on a pandemic-related archive project. At the same time, Dr. Cheryl Jiménez Frei, an assistant professor of history, was training students in her public history seminar course to conduct oral histories in a rapid-response collection project to document the pandemic and its effects on individuals and communities for future generations. Jiménez Frei approached Kocken about starting a group project, and the archive was born.

After Kocken and Jiménez Frei decided to collaborate, they invited archivist Jodi Kiffmeyer of the Chippewa Valley Museum to join them.

“As historians, we knew this was a moment we must document for the future,” Jiménez Frei says. “How will future generations understand what happened, and whose voices will be heard? My students and I wanted to capture a wide cross section of experiences, something that will be a strong resource for future historians, policymakers, researchers and students to understand the broad-reaching effects of the pandemic on daily life in our region of the world.

“By capturing history as it happens, we can preserve everyday experiences, stories, photos, digital artifacts and other ephemera that will create a picture of what it was like, and to create that picture with as many diverse perspectives as possible.”

Their goal was to capture COVID-19 stories from UW-Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley and preserve artifacts related to the pandemic. Since that initial start, public history students in Jiménez Frei’s classes have continued to gather oral histories and artifacts documenting the pandemic as we live through it. The items live in what now is called the Western Wisconsin COVID-19 Archive Project, a name change that reflects the expanded scope of the project as it has grown alongside the unfolding pandemic.

Future researchers will be especially interested in the oral histories because they capture the emotions, memories and individual thoughts and reflections of people during this time, Jiménez Frei says. Often during historic events, the voices preserved are only of those who hold influence or positions of power, but the students collected, and continue to collect, oral histories from a cross section of Chippewa Valley residents.

“COVID-19 is impacting almost every aspect of people’s lives, and that impact will likely continue to reverberate through society for years and decades to come,” Kocken says. “It’s important to document how it is impacting every corner of society so future scholars can study the social, economic and political effects of the pandemic to better understand how this moment in history changed us.”

As an archivist, Kiffmeyer always thinks about how today’s stories will be told by people in the future. Capturing stories during the pandemic will ensure they are not forgotten or lost, she says.

“The everyday details of life during a difficult time add richness to history, and it also helps people in the future learn how others have coped with frightening and stressful circumstances,” Kiffmeyer says.

The project also was a fabulous outside-the-classroom learning experience, something that is helping to shape how she sees her future, says Alexis Polencheck, a public history major from Ashland who assisted with the archive project.

“This experience beyond the classroom has impacted my career goals,” Polencheck says. “I have had an inkling of where I want to work in the history and art history field with archives and collections, and this experience is exactly that. I have learned so much over these months, lessons that can’t come from a classroom.”

The archive, which now includes hundreds of collected objects and more than 100 oral history interviews, evolved during these last 18 months to include stories and artifacts from throughout western Wisconsin.

Public donations of everyday artifacts or stories are welcome, and anyone wishing to participate can contribute their artifact through a submission page on the archive site.

In Jiménez Frei’s classes, public history students continue to gather oral histories documenting the pandemic as we live through it. 

While Wisconsin Historical Society awards typically are presented during an in-person event, the awards celebration was canceled this year because of the pandemic.

For information about the award or the Wisconsin Historical Society, see wisconsinhistory.org.

For more information about the Western Wisconsin COVID-19 Archive Project, contact Greg Kocken, head of special collections, at kockeng@uwec.edu, or Dr. Cheryl Jiménez Frei, assistant professor of history, at freica@uwec.edu.