Archiving the COVID-19 experience at Washington University

Sonya Rooney is the university archivist in Washington University Libraries’ Julian Edison Department of Special Collections.

University Archives is comprised of more than 300 unique collections that chronicle the history of Washington University from 1853 to today. A division of the Washington University Libraries’ Julian Edison Department of Special Collections, University Archives collects, preserves and provides access to these materials in order to support research, teaching and learning.

Bunny statue wearing a mask. James Byard/Washington University

James E. McLeod Memorial Lecture on Higher Education
Cultural Memory and the Peri-Pandemic Library
2 pm | Fri., April 23 (RSVP required)

Decisions made now by scholars, archivists, librarians, and community organizers, acting as individuals and as representatives of their institutions and collectives, will shape our cultural memory of the pandemic—and our capacity for speculative thinking, beyond it. What roles must libraries and archives—community-based, federal, and academic—play in times of national trauma and transition? 

Since March 2020, I have been collecting a variety of material related to COVID-19 and Washington University. Much of what I have collected has been online resources. We are able to capture university webpages, many of which include COVID-19 information, with Archive-It, a web-archiving service from Internet Archive. The webpages are then made available for us and for researchers.

We collect university publications, because these materials feature articles relating to COVID-19 and the university. We archive The Record, which comes out via email and is available on the university website. We also capture Washington Magazine with Archive-It and save print copies of the magazine when they’re available. In March 2020, we created the WashU in the News COVID-19 Collection to capture external news articles with contributions by faculty, researchers and staff.

Additionally, we are collecting general university materials, such as images from the Office of Public Affairs and COVID-19-related emails from the chancellor, provost and Student Affairs. We have also been collecting physical and digital student materials, including the newspaper Student Life and Student Union records, that document COVID-19 at the university.

Commencement at Washington University during the pandemic is another area we’ve focused on. We captured the videos of the virtual School and Affinity Group Commencement Recognition Ceremonies in May 2020. Commencement items that were mailed to graduates since there were no in-person ceremonies — a T-shirt resembling a graduation gown, a cap, a special tassel and a note from the Chancellor — have also been archived.

Graduate Christina Lindberg, wearing Commencement items provided by the university.

University Archives is gathering material related to special projects that have been developed at Washington University because of COVID-19:

  • Life/Lines is a poetry project hosted by the Center for the Humanities to capture creative work by faculty, staff, and students during the pandemic.
  • Public Affairs started the Share Your Story project for students, faculty, medical professionals, staff, alumni, and friends to document their personal experiences and stories.
  • The Gratitude Project, developed by the Innovation subcommittee of the Chancellor’s Fall Contingency Planning Committee, highlights stories of how faculty, staff and students are rising up for the greater good.

The students in the class “Health and Disease in World History,” taught by Corinna Treitel [professor of history in the Department of History], are constructing an archive of primary sources related to the pandemic experiences of the Washington University community, and some of that material will come to University Archives. The students are working in small groups on topics ranging from social distancing and mental health to inequality/protest and scientific responses. They are gathering photos, conducting interviews, recording memories and assembling many other kinds of sources. Along the way, they are learning what archives do, where primary sources come from and how historical knowledge is built from the primary sources that archives collect.

In order to build these archival collections, I have collaborated with my colleagues on the University Libraries’ Department of Special Collections Web Archiving Team — Robert Manley, Gail Walters and Sarah Weeks — who have worked to capture the various websites with Archive-It. I have also worked with Anne Cleary and Rachel Twedt in Public Affairs to coordinate campus images for archiving. If you’d like more information about these collecting efforts, please contact me at


Headline image: One of the many COVID-19 signs on Danforth Campus. James Byard/Washington University