Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Historical society, UW students team up to preserve pandemic stories

Soldiers stand outside a barracks building at Fort Lewis in Pierce County in 1918. A sign over the door of the barracks reads partially “Company B." The men were under quarantine for Spanish influenza.
Gregg Courtwright Collection
/
Washington State Historical Society
Soldiers stand outside a barracks building at Fort Lewis in Pierce County in 1918. A sign over the door of the barracks reads partially “Company B." The men were under quarantine for Spanish influenza. ";

When Washington experienced the first reported case of COVID-19 in the country, the Washington State Historical Society began receiving requests for archival materials about the 1918 Spanish influenza. Margaret Wetherbee, the museum’s head of collections, says she didn’t find much – just some photos of officials and quarantined soldiers at Fort Lewis. 

“But that doesn't help now,” says Wetherbee. “That doesn't help tell the story of what happened in history. It's our job to capture those moments because that's where the gold is. That's where the real stories lie.” 

 

The historical society is now working with a class of seniors from University of Washington's School of Public Health to collect the kind of stories that are missing from the last pandemic: oral histories from ordinary people living through COVID-19. The class is taught by Professor Anjulie Ganti.

 

As their capstone project, the students are interviewing family and community members about how COVID-19 has impacted them. 

Ganti says oral histories are an important public health research tool because they uncover things that data collection might miss. Ganti believes that “these oral histories are going to surface information that public health practitioners can take action on because [they’ll reveal] the things that we aren't thinking about because we don't have those lived experiences.” 

Most of Ganti’s students are from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 – communities whose voices are often left out of the historical record. Ganti estimates that 80 percent of her Public Health students are from communities of color or nontraditional academic backgrounds.    

The oral histories will be housed in a long-term collection at the Washington State Historical Society.