A Living Archive During The Time of covid-19

It’s been interesting to see so many groups trying to record what we are all experiencing. Here in Australia the National Museum of Australia has asked Australians to share their experiences and observations as we all go through this bizarre new normal in the time of COVID-19. Check it out here: https://www.nma.gov.au/about/bridging-the-distance-pandemic-experiences.

I love that the National Museum of Australia is doing this.

Every single one of us has a family history dotted with major events–wars, disease, famine, natural disasters–you name it and they’ve been through it. Fast forward a few hundred years and trying to piece together what they actually experienced at the time is difficult, if not down right impossible.

While I am an old-school paper kind of girl, and I still spend a good few minutes breathing in the smell of a new book, I am grateful for this age of cloud storage and electronic journaling. And of course, Australia is not the only country looking to record this situation from the perspective of the individual within the greater community.

Some, like Australia, are looking internally for local stories, such as this article in the Irish Times:


Others are looking for nationals who are displaced, such as this article from the Baltic News Network:


These are just a few examples after doing a quick google search, but I have no doubt there are hundreds of other such opportunities to share and learn about how we are navigating this new time.

As I mentioned in my last post Our History Is Happening Now, it is not (typically) difficult to piece together the basic chronology of a period in time–the dates and places, etc….that’s usually all part of the public record. You can see glimpses of the impact in census records, vital statistics indexes–these types of primary sources will give a broad-brushstrokes picture of what happened. Sure. But what about the softer side of history? What did it feel like to be there then?

As an example, I’ll grab a snippet from my own family history. My three-times paternal great-grandparents, John Morgan and Margaret Morgan (née Trainor), were married in Ardee, County Louth, Ireland in August of 1839. I know this because it is written in the local church records. I’ve had this tidbit of information in my archives for going on 30 years, but it was only within the last year or so that I learned about a national disaster in Ireland that occurred in January of the same year. This was an event of such a scale that it became part of the folk history of Ireland – it was The Big Wind, and the whole Island was affected.

The Big Wind was even used for Proof of age questions for the Old-Age Pensions Act 1908. Why? The formal registration of Births and Deaths did not begin in Ireland until 1863, but being able to remember first-hand the night of the Big Wind lent credence to an individuals testimonial of their age, and their subsequent eligibility for a Pension.

My three-times great-grandparents likely already knew each other on that fateful night of 6 January 1839. Perhaps they were already courting, or, maybe they started courting because of their experiences during that storm. Left to my own devices I can come up with all sorts of romantic ideas, but who really knows? I have found precious few first-person accounts of what happened on the night of The Big Wind in general, and none (yet) particular to the small area where my family were centred. I haven’t given up though, I’ll keep looking.

John and Margaret are just one example of a watershed moment having an impact on the direction of my family’s futures. Here are a few others:

  • That same John and Margaret later emigrated from Ireland to the United States in late 1850, leaving the majority of their children to follow almost a year later. I’d love to know the discussions that they had with each other and the greater family about such a step, and what they lived through before that became the only viable, yet terrible, solution.
  • Claude-Jacques Graton, my 9th great-grandfather on my mother’s side, brought his family and his sister to Quebec in the mid-1600s. After getting them settled, which included getting his sister married, and his wife pregnant, he then disappears from the Province, never to be heard from again. By the records we’ve found so far he came from a reputable family in France, so why did they leave France? His sister was not the typical candidate for a Fille de Roi….and why did he leave them? Did he abandon the family on purpose, or was he lost at sea? Was their flight across the Atlantic due to politics? Religion? Dwindling fortunes? Still digging there too…
  • More recently? Unplanned and unexpected if you had asked me 20 years ago, I now find myself happily settled near Melbourne, a citizen of Australia (a far cry from my Boston, USA roots). The path that took me here involved the circus – there’s a good story there! I should probably write it down….

And that’s what happens. In our daily lives we experience these watershed moments all the time. But it’s just about us, or so we think, and most of us never put the priority to recording those moments, creating a cycle of mystery and questions for future generations.

As a genealogist myself you’d think I’d be much better at recording life as it happens. I frequently by lovely looking blank-page journals full of intentions to document the little things on a daily basis – these typically gather dust, or get gifted along the way, hopefully to someone who will put them to better use.

Let’s just say it’s on my To Do List to get better at this–a list which has gotten a lot shorter of late.

Where are you finding your outlets during this time of global self-isolation? Does your country or local community have a resource like those I’ve highlighted above? Have you found some refuge within the stories of others? Have you become a contributor of your own?

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