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Savannah’s historical institutions strive to preserve materials that capture 2020
Locals are encouraged to submit photos and other traces of this memorably tumultuous year
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A picture of a 2020 grad wearing a face mask as a COVID-19 precaution, submitted to the “COVID-19 in Georgia” project. - photo by Georgia Historical Society
While most people who lived through 2020 are likely eager to see it end and forget all about it, future historians will certainly seek to research this year that brought about a pandemic with related economic hardships, widespread calls for racial justice, and a bitterly divisive election.

Here in Savannah, historical institutions are working to preserve varied documentary materials – ranging from snapshots of family members wearing face masks to emergency government orders – that will allow future researchers to learn in-depth details about what life was like in 2020, firm in the knowledge that traces from this year that are archived today will be regarded as valuable relics a few generations from now.

“We need to recognize that what we’re living through is history,” said Patricia Meagher, director of communications for the Savannah-based Georgia Historical Society. “It is so important right now to collect things that people see. … We know it’s going to be such a valuable resource for historians and documentarians to see what life was like in Ardsley Park or Pooler.”

Established in 1839, the Georgia Historical Society already keeps meticulous records of contemporary goings-on around the state for the benefit of future researchers on a regular basis. However, when the coronavirus pandemic first forced Savannah Mayor Van Johnson to issue a citywide shelter-at-home order in March, causing GHS employees to work remotely from home, Meagher and her colleagues came to realize how important it would be to create easily accessible records of what 2020 was bringing.

Early on during the COVID-19 crisis, GHS staff was inundated with requests about how Georgia authorities dealt with the 1918 Flu Pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu. Without access to the GHS library and archives of hard-copy documents, many of these requests could not be immediately answered by the home-bound staffers.

“We had very little that was digitized about Spanish flu in Georgia,” Meagher said, noting that this lack of access highlighted contemporary society’s rapid shift in technology, and gave the GHS staff inspiration about how to preserve details about 2020’s pandemic in a way that future historians could rapidly attain them. “That kind of helped inform what we were doing, and how we would go about it.”

One issue that GHS staff had to contend with is the relatively small percentage of records that are created as hard-copy documents nowadays, with so much of modern information only being presented and preserved digitally. While this technology allows massive amounts of documentation to be stored in tiny memory devices, it also decreases the chances that future historians will have easy access to relevant photos, official records, and other media.

“Those are the things that documentarians are going to come looking for,” Meagher said. “Do we really think that when we’re gone, somebody’s going to go through a cloud drive?” To address this conundrum, the GHS launched its “COVID-19 in Georgia” project, aiming to create a wide-ranging database of photographs, written records, audio or video recordings, and other documentary materials that the staff can compile into one platform that will be readily available for future historians to research.

“We’re so fortunate to receive things that 100 years from now are going to tell the stories” of 2020, Meagher said, adding that the records chosen for this project are not restricted to official papers or professional-quality photographs. “We received a huge collection of digital pictures that were drawn by children in the Atlanta area.”

A distinctively 2020 picture submitted to the “COVID-19 in Georgia” project.
A distinctively 2020 picture submitted to the “COVID-19 in Georgia” project. - photo by Georgia Historical Society
Everyone from anywhere across Georgia is welcome to submit documentation from 2020 – including stories about local heroes, poems, journal entries, and snapshots from everyday life – to the “COVID-19 in Georgia” project by visiting georgiahistory.com/covid-19-in-georgia-collecting-the-stories-of-georgians-during-the-pandemic-of-2020 and filling out a form describing the material submitted.

“It may be used in future research. It may be used right now to promote this,” Meagher said. “Everything is being uploaded to us digitally.”

Similarly, Savannah’s Municipal Archives department in City Hall is also launching an initiative for city staff members to provide documentation chronicling the unique challenges of 2020.

“In 20, 50, 100 years, if somebody says, ‘What did the city do in response to the pandemic,’ we will have the materials,” said Municipal Archives Director Luciana Spracher. Since April, Spracher and her team – ordinarily charged with preserving Savannah’s official documents and City Council records – have been collecting extra materials related to the city’s reactions to the pandemic, as well as to demonstrations in support of racial equality and to other momentous occasions of this year. Soon Municipal Archives will also be requesting that city staff members volunteer their own recollections from 2020, either about how their duties were affected or about their own lives.

“It can be about work, it can be about their personal family life. … We can capture some of these firsthand experiences and thoughts,” Spracher said. “What we’ve done is basically send out reminders to departments to start sending us information.” While official-record management remains the primary task of the Municipal Archives department, Spracher sees personal recollections of city staff in 2020 as potentially being an invaluable resource for future researchers.

“This is a bigger event that’s touching everybody’s life. … It’s also changed the way we work every day,” Spracher said. “We’ve had employees that have had COVID. What was that experience like?”

And although Spracher will never meet the historians of upcoming generations who draw on the work of her department to learn what really happened during 2020, she and her team feel honored to be playing the crucial role of preserving future artifacts that will make this research possible.

“We know this is going to be used,” Spracher said of the records of 2020 currently being collected. “To be part of documenting and preserving this historic moment in time, it’s exciting, and sobering.”