When COVID-19 disrupted Yale University’s campus life in March of 2020, University Archivist Michael Lotstein sprung into action, documenting student reactions. For nearly a year, the “Help Us Make History” initiative has not only archived Yale University community experiences, but also engaged students in the university’s history and its archival story. We sat down to talk about community interactions, the process of making history, and the role of this project in Yale’s future story.
Allison Chu: To get us into the world of archives, could you tell me a little about your position as a University Archivist at Yale?
Michael Lotstein: In a nutshell, the University Archivist is responsible for the acquisition, processing and accessibility of all of the university’s historical records. We acquire about 400-500 feet of new records in paper every year, and a few terabytes of digital records. If you put them end to end, our holdings would stretch about nine miles in length, dating all the way back to 1701 with the founding charter of Yale University, all the way up to digital records from 2020.
Allison Chu: You’ve been working on a project called “Help Us Make History,” an ongoing initiative to document student, faculty, and staff experiences at the university during the COVID-19 pandemic. How did this project start?
Michael Lotstein: Well, it started as soon as the university announced back in March 2020 that everyone would be staying home after Spring Break. I’m not only an archivist, but also a historian, and I immediately recognized the gravity of what was happening. This was a seminal event in the history of the university, and we needed to do something to document the reaction of the Yale community. The first thing I did was put together a brief survey in Qualtrics, and I sent it out to all the undergraduates. It was just a simple five or six question survey, with questions like “What is your reaction to staying home, What has your online learning experience been like? How are you holding up? What do you miss most about being on campus?” These questions were mostly to just take the temperature of where everybody was in the moment. The responses were anonymous, so we got some very frank and unfiltered responses. Many students were afraid, confused, and frustrated. But the majority were also optimistic about the future; they thought that the university handled things really well and they were hopeful for the future. We received over 200 responses to the survey, which was far beyond our expectations.
Out of the success of that survey, the “Help Us Make History” project was born, primarily to include more tangible evidence and records of how students were living their daily lives during the pandemic and what their overall feelings were about their personal and academic lives during this period. With the help of the library’s Digital Humanities Lab, we set up the website and began with prompts, asking questions around a certain topic or theme. The first prompt we had was, “Send us a picture of your study space.” Basically, we were asking where the students were studying, and we got a really good response rate for that as well. The first prompt came out in April of last year, and the seventh prompt for the project just dropped the week of January 11th. We wanted to give students a chance to reflect on how they were feeling, put a video together, or do some other creative piece to best reflect what they wanted to say. We’re planning on continuing the project at least through the calendar year of 2021, and then we’ll revisit. If everyone comes back to campus, and we’re all vaccinated, then it’ll probably be put to bed, but if not, then we’ll expand it into 2022 as well.
Allison Chu: Are there plans for the project once the students return to campus and make the transition back to in-person learning?
Michael Lotstein: Once we get the word about it from the administration, I will work on our next steps. The “Help Us Make History” project has a few side projects that are ongoing as well, that aren’t directly affiliated with the website itself. One of them is a partnership with the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning to collect student work (papers, videos, work they did for classes that had topics related to the pandemic) on any subject. We have work from economics, art, history, and language classes. We also have another Qualtrics survey set up for faculty and graduate students to donate their course syllabi, recorded Zoom lectures, or any other course content that they have created for classes that they’ve put together on the pandemic as well. And, during the fall of last year, I was contacted by three students from Saybrook College who were putting together a podcast with interviews from students about their lives during the pandemic. They asked if they could partner with me, and the “Say and Seal: Life at Yale during COVID-19” podcast was born out of that. The first episode was released at the end of last year on iTunes, Spotify, and Soundcloud, about the gap year. They interviewed students to find out why they took a gap year, and what they have been doing. The next episode will be on the presidential election, and it will be out by the end of February. We hope to have at least two or three more episodes released by May. Additionally, the President’s Office has a podcast interview series that we participated in as well. I was interviewed by President Salovey discussing the “Help Us Make History” project and its impact on Yale history.
Allison Chu: When we think of stereotypical archives, normally we think of dusty boxes full of old books and papers. But this project is different, because it’s recording history as it’s happening. What contemporary considerations do you have to think about while doing this project?
Michael Lotstein: Archivists are always reactive to incidents and circumstances surrounding the communities they live in and the institutions they work for. During events such as Occupy Wall Street, or many of the other social justice movements including Black Lives Matter, that have sprung up across the United States over the past few years, archivists are always at the forefront of these events, looking to document things as they happen. Oftentimes, hindsight doesn’t necessarily make for good collecting practice, whereby somebody who might have been heavily involved in something of great historical significance simply threw everything away, deleted their emails, or decommissioned their project because there wasn’t an archivist there to tell them not to.
Allison Chu: Something that was interesting to me about this project was its multimedia approach to collecting these student experiences. You are working with both physical postcards and digital responses through surveys. How does this impact the project?
Michael Lotstein: We collect regardless of format. It doesn’t matter if it’s paper or if it’s digital—a record is a record. It’s the information that the record contains that has the historical value that we’re looking for. It was actually the University Librarian, Barbara Rockenbach and the Library’s Reference, Instruction, and Outreach Committee that partnered with me on the postcard events. It was really their idea, but I suggested branding it with the “Help Us Make History” project for promotional purposes, and it had a much larger impact as a result. We had over 200 responses to both of our in-person events, and we had 150 responses online. By far, it’s been our biggest success as far as the prompts are concerned, and it really opened our eyes to the importance of having an in-person event when we can.
Allison Chu: I imagine this multimedia approach also allows you to reach the students who aren’t on campus right now. What are your plans to make sure that they are included as well?
Michael Lotstein: Yes! In fact our next prompt is “What advice would you give to returning students for the spring semester?” We have our second-years coming back; they haven’t been to campus in a really long time, and the idea is what tips or advice would you give to them for their return to campus. The prompt is meant to be very broad and inclusive. Everybody has something to offer in terms of returning to campus.
Allison Chu: Because these responses are so recent, and the pandemic is ongoing, how will this archive be made available or displayed?
Michael Lotstein: It’ll be processed like any other archival collection. All the material is sitting in various Qualtrics surveys or on Manuscripts and Archives servers. When the project ends, we’ll create a collection and process the materials. It will then be made available to the general public. This collection will be very usable for outreach events. It might be something that we create an online exhibit for to display a sampling of responses. I think that it’ll be an amazing collection for students to use 50 or 100 years from now, when seniors are writing their senior essays about the pandemic in the twenty-first century. This will be a primary source for students to use.
Allison Chu: Let’s zoom out. Has this project impacted how you’ve viewed archive acquisition or data collection?
Michael Lotstein: Not from a practical standpoint. We’ve been collecting digital data for years. The new components to all of this is how the University Archives engages with the Yale community. I think that people have the impression that we are just this department that exists on the periphery and isn’t interested in individuals as students or as faculty members. One of the things that I’ve worked hard to do during this project is to demystify the archives. Students, during their time at Yale, help write the university’s history. They are Yale’s history. It’s important that their stories are documented: who they are, what they’ve done, what they’ve felt. This is all very important to creating the history that will be written about Yale in the future. Showing that the university cares about its students is not just within its policies and procedures for COVID or for the way that the online to in-person learning is set up. We care about the university’s history and the students that make that history possible. This project is a way of celebrating that.