Thinking Ahead: Bowdoin Launches Oral History of the Pandemic
Oral historian Andrea (Frankenfield) L'Hommedieu has begun interviewing those in the Bowdoin community who helped steer the College through the pandemic. Her initial list of thirty-four people—a number that will likely grow—includes President Clayton Rose, trustees, deans, faculty, and students.
The stories and information L'Hommedieu gathers over the duration of the project—both the audio recordings and their transcriptions—will be archived by the College Library's George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives. While the material will initially be restricted, all the interviews eventually will be publicly accessible.
Rose said the College wants to ensure it has a comprehensive historical record of the institution in an unprecedented time. "This has been a profound moment in our 227 years," he added, "and we are obligated to accurately and thoroughly compile, organize, and preserve a record of the issues and challenges we faced, the decisions we took and the processes we used to reach them, and the outcomes and experiences in the period between the late winter of 2020 and the start of school in the fall of 2021."
While archivists can retain relevant College records that document the pandemic response, Rose said that including an oral history is key to creating a thorough account of events.
Bowdoin Digital Archivist Meagan Doyle is overseeing this project, as well as the Library's other efforts to document the pandemic. This includes encouraging members of the Bowdoin community to contribute personal stories "in their own words." "It has been an important historic moment, and we want to document it from all angles," she said.
"The COVID-19 pandemic was a historic event for the College, as well as the country and the world. We were faced with new issues and decisions almost every day, many with profound ramifications. The pandemic required us to fundamentally change how we deliver a Bowdoin education and how we keep everyone safe, and it required the engagement, goodwill, and immense efforts of everyone in our community—faculty, staff, students, and the board." — President Clayton Rose
The Time is Now
The parallels between COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu of 1918 have prompted many institutions to look into their archives to find details about what happened more than a century ago. Whether they uncovered a lot of material or just a paucity, the moment has led to an "awareness raising," L'Hommedieu said. Institutional leaders realize they have the opportunity right now to collect and preserve information that can provide insight for future generations.
Those being interviewed by L'Hommedieu are getting the opportunity to pause and think over the past year. Director of Residential and Student Life Mike Ranen, who took on the role of COVID Resource Coordinator in the crisis, said his conversation with L'Hommedieu made him realize just how much and how quickly the College evolved as the pandemic progressed.
"There were so many reacting to day-to-day challenges that this oral history project is a way for us to reflect on the past fifteen months in a way we haven’t been able to," he said. "For me, being interviewed for the project was a time machine," one that showed him how the decision-making of College leaders developed as they gained experience with COVID-19 while the world learned more about the virus.
Mary Lou Kennedy, who ran Bowdoin Dining Services for thirty-four years before retiring last September, played an integral role in planning for the return of students, including reorganizing the College's entire dining operation to keep students fed while also keeping them and the dining staff safe. She was recently interviewed by L'Hommedieu, and said that it "was nice to reminisce" with someone skilled at listening.
To put her interviewees at ease, L'Hommedieu reassures them that there are "no right or wrong answers," to her questions. "There are just perspectives and clues. Oral historians approach interviews in a way that allows people to tell stories in the way they want to tell them."
Her first interview for Bowdoin was with Rose, and she will circle back to him as she nears the end of the project. She began her conversation with him by asking him to think back to the winter of 2020, and when he first knew that things were changing and that Bowdoin would have to respond.
"An oral history project is a mosaic," L'Hommedieu said. "Each person’s story comes together to form a full picture, and that is what we’re trying to do here at Bowdoin—to get the perspective of so many people who were part of the institution's response to pandemic. At the end you will have a well-rounded documentation of how the College got through."