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County’s COVID-19 archive documents history in real time

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COVID archive

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, left, and Matt Lautzenheiser, executive director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, helped get the Missoula County COVID archive off the ground. Last week, the county rolled out a searchable database of documents and oral histories from a variety of community members involved in Missoula’s COVID-19 response.

Missoulians witnessed history as it happened over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now they have an opportunity to review the tumultuous events through an archive put together by Missoula County and the University of Montana.

Last week, the county rolled out a searchable database of documents and oral histories from a variety of community members involved in Missoula’s COVID-19 response.

“It’s a very rich and deep archive of what happened in Missoula,” said UM Professor Leif Fredrickson, the project manager for the archive.

The archive brings together government leaders, public health officials, business owners and nonprofit heads to discuss their experiences over the past two years.

Interviews with Incident Commander Cindy Farr, documented news stories, and internal communications from a home care company comprise elements of the archive’s materials. Putting the project together remains an ongoing initiative, and project leaders hope to continue getting input from the community.

“That’s the cool thing about the archive: you can literally track the pandemic from the beginning through the present day,” said Matt Lautzenheiser with the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. Lautzenheiser played a key role in early data collection for the archive during the first days of the pandemic.

“It was exciting for me to be able to work on this at the very beginning,” he said.

From the onset of the pandemic, Lautzenheiser and other local historians saw the importance of capturing the historical moment.

Lautzenheiser credited Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier with “recognizing this is a watershed event.”

Lautzenheiser, Strohmaier, Fredrickson and others working with them turned to the 1918 Spanish Flu as an example for their work.

“What do we wish we had from 1918?” Lautzenheiser asked to guide their research.

As the pandemic and the archive developed along parallel lines, the project leaders sought to formalize their research effort. They secured federal  Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding to conduct formal interviews and host the archive using digital searchable software.

UM’s Mansfield Library stepped up to maintain the archive.

A consistent challenge the team faced along the way was the decision of what to include.

“We wanted to make sure this was a community-wide effort,” said Strohmaier. “We are trying to bring in as many voices as possible.”

Strohmaier and his colleagues reached out to high-level leaders and everyday community members to generate what Fredrickson called a “cross-section” of Missoula’s pandemic experience.

They endeavored to include the controversy over responses, searching out, for example, public health officials and community members who disagreed with public health guidance.

“It’s a strand of a broader tapestry that tells a story of what happened,” said Strohmaier.

There was a question, too, of timing the rollout of the archive.

Lautzenheiser said he felt a sense that some of the research was happening too soon after the trauma of the pandemic for some participants, but others wanted to document the events in real time.

He hopes that as the intensity of the crisis wanes, participation in the archive will increase.

The archive team also hopes their research serves as a guide for other communities and for Missoulians in the future.

“To my knowledge, no one has done anything quite like this across the country,” Strohmaier said. He said he would like to see other communities replicate Missoula County’s efforts to document their own histories.

“We are working at being cutting-edge in a way that benefits others more broadly,” he said.

The thorough documentation in the archive should also provide guidance to Missoula for future public health events or other disasters.

“Let’s think expansively about what we’re doing, learn from it and adapt and be resilient in the future,” said Strohmaier.

The importance of learning from past experience figured as Strohmaier’s major takeaway from working on the archive.

“History matters,” he stressed.

To Fredrickson, the key takeaway was the surprisingly overwhelming nature of the pandemic as it seeped into every corner of the community.

“One of the things that came out of this was how deeply this affected every aspect of life,” he said.

But that pervasiveness led to a feeling of unity, Fredrickson noted. “There was a sense of Missoula having a pretty strong community spirit,” he said.

Lautzenheiser, too, emerged from the project feeling encouraged about the community’s response to the pandemic.

“I really came away with a sense that the decisions by the Health Department and the county were honestly what they thought would keep people safe,” he said. “It’s not always popular, but it’s what you want government to be and what you want government to do.”

“I came away feeling more confident,” Lautzenheiser added.

Going forward, they hope to add to the contents of the archive with diaries, photos and additional interviews.

“We’re still looking to expand this,” said Strohmaier. “We are hoping to really ramp up the number and expanse of contributions to the project.”

They’d also like to come up with some sort of analysis to go over the archive in its entirety.

Strohmaier said such a measure would be “a gift to future generations of Missoula residents.”

To access the county’s Covid-19 archive, go to https://unimon.access.preservica.com/archive.

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