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Preserving history at the Newton Gresham Library

University librarian launches 2020 time capsule initiative

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Erin Owens

Erin Owens at the Newton Gresham Library on the campus of Sam Houston State University is leading an initiative to capsulate 2020 in a time capsule.

The Newton Gresham Library is seeking the community’s help in recording history.

Personal works from Walker County residents are being collected to form a 2020 archive that will serve as a time capsule depicting how 2020 looked and felt in our community.

It’s no doubt that 2020 has been a doozy from the start. The COVID-19 pandemic first struck the globe at its core, as the world turned to social isolation in the midst of fear, grief, toilet paper hoarding and severe economic depression. By late May, George Floyd’s death sparked global Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, systemic racism and surging debate over the remaining Confederate statues and monuments anchoring oppression in society.

As 2020 will certainly be a pivotal time in history on multiple fronts, the Newton Gresham Library hopes to recant the stories of our community through the community for future generations to better learn from.

“As librarians, we’re obviously very interested in preserving information for people to access in the future, but I’m also a mother. My son’s just a toddler right now, and I’ve started thinking about the fact that someday, when he’s in school many years in the future, they might study the COVID-19 pandemic in their textbook,” Newton Gresham Library librarian Erin Owens said. “They might do research projects to find out what life was like living through the pandemic, what the social isolation felt like and the toilet paper shortages, all of those amusing aspects and all the terrifying aspects.”

“So that really just got me thinking, what could we do to help my son’s generation to really get a glimpse back at what this felt like?”

Noticing similar projects being put forth by universities across the nation, Owens felt inspired to do the same for Walker County.

“It really sort of started with COVID, we saw some other universities in other states that were starting similar archives to document how their students experienced the rapid shut down of classes and things like that from COVID,” Owens said. “I just really found that intriguing. I started wondering if we could do a project like that for our community.”

A community project like this is a completely new endeavor for the Sam Houston State University library. Submissions including, but not limited to narratives, letters, photographs, diary entries, poetry, video and audio content are welcomed from SHSU staff, faculty and students and all Walker County residents.

“Because so many of us have never lived through something like this before, I think people are really eager for that opportunity to tell their story, and people have been very creative so far. I kind of had some sense in my mind of what sorts of documents I thought we might get, and people are already exceeding my expectations, coming up with far more creative contributions than I ever expected,” Owens said. “I think everyone is really excited about the opportunity to make their voice heard in the future.”

Within a day or two of advertising the project online, Owens notes that the library has received wide interest and about 10 completed works have already been submitted, including a video series from the Sam Houston Percussion Group.

The videos capture the students’ experience in isolation through a compilation of the students’ recorded musical performances, photo collages and original poetry created during the university’s five weeks of remote online classes.

“I think it is important to remember this time in history … Americans generally have short memories, so I would hope that the archive can preserve something of the feeling or experience of our present moment,” Sam Houston State University director of Percussion Studies John Lane said.

The digital archive will be available online for anyone to browse through the collection and will expand its reach through added keywords and metadata.

“The library already operates a Digital Special Collection website, where we will photograph or digitize unique materials that are in our library, so we will create a space within that for the 2020 archive website,” Owens said. “It will really be very accessible to anybody in the future who is studying or researching what 2020 was like.”

The archive gallery is tentatively scheduled to be up and running by the early fall semester and will be added to as submissions come in throughout the year. There is no deadline as of yet, because it is uncertain what the future of 2020 will have in store, however Owens notes that materials may be accepted as late as the early months of 2021.

“We really welcome anybody to reach out to us, somebody may think they have something that’s not very interesting or exciting, but a lot of times, just the most mundane day-to-day documents might be more interesting than they realize to researchers in the future. So I really encourage people not to worry about whether their content is boring, just to reach out to us,” Owens said.

Submissions to the SHSU 2020 archive can be completed on the Newton Gresham Library website.