People rarely call in the humanities experts during times of crisis — but libraries are doing exactly that.
On first examination, it may seem like there is little place for the humanities in a pandemic — that only hard facts and medicine can help us in a historic moment like this one. After all, people rarely call in the humanities experts during times of crisis.
But in a sense, libraries and other institutions are doing exactly that. While their buildings might be closed, libraries continue to be trusted sources of reference services (while fighting misinformation), readers advisory, virtual programming and more. Cultural institutions are responding to this pandemic in different ways, from advocating for the power and use of the humanities to starting timely collections initiatives.
In this time of so much worry, what can the humanities offer us? And how can we, as library workers, many of us socially isolated at our desks or on our couches, help further this work?
The value of the humanities
Carin Berkowitz and Dan Fatton of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities made their argument for why the humanities matter in an op-ed:
“As humanists, we feel keenly aware that the needs we serve — for human contact, for compassion, for community, for analysis and perspective — are stronger than ever, and so, taking the lead from others in our broader cultural community, we are trying to get creative. We are trying to make sure that in the midst of staying alive, we don’t forget about being human. ... It strikes us that this is also a moment in which we should remember what the humanities can do for us as individuals: transporting us, giving us a new and broader perspective, reminding us of our creativity, of beauty, and of our inherent humanity.”
Berkowitz and Fatton are joined by scores of other humanities scholars and practitioners who are responding to this crisis by advocating for the importance of the humanities. Here are some highlights:
- In "How Digital Humanities Can Help Us in a Pandemic," science writer Celia Luterbach explores how digital humanities can help us parse out reliable information (a useful skill anytime!) and modern media savviness can help us critically evaluate our sources of information.
- In "Learning to Deal with the Coronavirus Through Literature," Clay Jenkinson, editor-at-large of Governing: The Future of States and Localites, advocates for immersing yourself in plague-related literature.
- In "Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do it?," The New York Times Magazine presents a conversation between prominent thinkers asking the difficult queston of when our economy and social lives may return to something resembling normal.
- "Princeton Humanists Respond to Coronavirus" offers information on everything from reading recommendations, reflections on capitalism, and how to prepare for virtual classes.
- In "What do the Humanities Do in a Crisis?," philosopher Agnes Collard explores what humanists have to learn during this time.
Capturing this moment in time
Looking more closely at our own work, how can libraries and other organizations support the humanities during the pandemic? One way is by asking people to share their stories.
The everyday experiences of Americans is radically different than it was just a few weeks ago. These experiences — including trying new recipes, experimenting with video chatting, accessing e-library options for the first time, modifying exercise schedules, establishing work-from-home routines, taking care of and teaching children, and connecting with loved ones — can and should be documented for the future.
- Oregon Humanities has modified their ongoing “Dear Stranger” letter-writing program to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, encouraging participants to write letters focused on what they have learned and reflecting on how their community and institutions have responded. Meanwhile, Virginia Humanities’ Executive Director Matthew Gibson writes that it’s the “human connection that gives us hope” in trying times.
- At Arizona State University, an online, crowdsourced, open access archive, "A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of Covid-19," seeks images, audio stories, videos, links, files, and more related to traumatic and joyful experiences of this pandemic. Future students and others will be able to access the archive to understand this moment in history. This kind of initiative with its broad scope has the immediate potential to be useful to students, researchers, and others who are interested in understanding this historical moment through what others choose to donate to archive. More information on this initiative is here: ASU team leads effort to archive effect of COVID-19 on everyday lives.
- On a national scale, the Smithsonian has announced the launch of a Rapid Response Collecting Task Force to collect urgent of-the-moment history. The New York Historical Society has also issued a call for submissions to document this moment in New York’s history.
- Close to my home, the Trenton (N.J.) Free Public Library’s Trentoniana collection is their local history and genealogy collection containing books, photos, oral histories, papers, and more about the history of Trenton, New Jersey. In response to this crisis, they have put out a call for submissions to their online form so that they can document “feelings, what you are seeing around you, what you are doing, and what effect this is having on you, your family and your neighbors.”
- And the Historical Society of Princeton has started an extensive History@Home initiative to provide the public with easy access to virtual resources including local walking tours, digital exhibits, transcription initiatives, and more. Notably, they are seeking to build a COVID-19 collection of individual experiences, journals, photos, and other items to capture this moment in Princeton’s history.
Looking to for funding for a humanities project? The National Endowment for the Humanities has announced new grant opportunities for organizations affected by coronavirus.
Reply in the comments with more libraries, historical societies, or other institutions that are collecting materials based on this crisis, as well as articles relevant to humanities in a time of crisis.