Newsletter: Archiving history as it happens

A sign on a store in Burbank on April 15.
(Raul Roa / Times Community News)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, May 12, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

It is easy enough to trace the lines of history through textbooks, to memorize (and eventually forget) the important names, dates and battles. But the concept of history itself usually feels far from immediate. It’s the province of the past, of other people’s lives, at once both much bigger and more abstract than anything we use to fill our days.

Except, of course, at a moment like the present — when the magnitude of the events at hand has made nearly every minute feel like fodder for the history books. But who gets tasked with capturing all those ephemeral changes and somehow preserving them for posterity? And whose version of these strange days will eventually make its way into the historical record?


Maybe yours, if the Los Angeles Public Library has its way.

In recent weeks, the library has embarked on an effort to document life in Los Angeles during the pandemic with its Safer at Home archive. It’s asking Angelenos to digitally submit materials that will help tell the story of COVID-19 and its effect on our lives, reflecting the changing dynamics in homes, workplaces and communities. Think personal emails and letters, the signs posted outside businesses and the pictures you’re snapping on your phone.

“The goal is to build a collection — photos, diaries, creative works like drawings and poems that will help future researchers, historians and students understand what it was like living in Los Angeles during this pandemic during this historic time,” Kelly Wallace, the library’s California history subject specialist, said.

[See also: “Journaling the coronavirus pandemic: ‘I’m scared.’ ‘Can we get a dog?’ ‘Everything just feels odd’” in the Los Angeles Times]

Suzanne Im, the acting senior librarian of digitization and special collections at LAPL, said it was “a little bit more unusual” for an institution to start collecting around an event while it was still occurring.

“But I feel like a lot of libraries have been jumping on the bandwagon in collecting because of the historicity of the event. We haven’t experienced a pandemic at this scale for a century, and people want to archive it,” she said, explaining how starting now would allow people to gather materials while they were still sheltering in place at home and had the time to provide context and descriptions. Submissions will be digitally preserved and catalogued, and eventually made accessible to the public through the library’s online special collections portal.

The library’s Safer at Home Archive is one of many similar projects happening across the nation. Other pandemic archiving efforts already underway here in California include projects at Stanford, Cal State Dominguez Hills, the Palos Verdes Library District and the Autry Museum of the American West, among others.

[See also: “What historians will see when they look back on the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020" in the New York Times]

Different projects have different focuses, but their primary aim is the same: to capture not just the broad strokes of radical disruption, but also how the granular texture of people’s lives changed during the coronavirus.

A good historian, as the French historian Marc Bloch once wrote, “is like the giant of the fairy tale. He knows that wherever he catches the scent of human flesh, there his quarry lies.” Bloch was not espousing cannibalism, but rather the need to excavate around the intimate to grasp how people actually lived.

A hundred years from now, the headlines, government reports and statistics will certainly tell a story. But understanding our individual and collective grief, obsessions, restlessness, desperation and drastically altered routines will require details that are far more specific and subjective. It’s the personal stories that make history come to life, Wallace said. “They fill in the gaps.”

As Wallace and Im both explained, part of the library’s focus with the Safer at Home project is to build an inclusive archive. If history often gets told by digging through archives, the institutions deciding what’s worth preserving hold a great deal of power in determining those future narratives.

“For example, women in the past have not necessarily had as much documented about them in archives, or people from ethnic communities may not be part of certain archives,” Im said. The library plans to work with librarians at different branch libraries, as well as through their engagement and learning departments, to ensure a broad range of submissions to the Safer at Home archive. Angelenos can submit digital materials to the archive here.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

A stubborn plateau in the number of COVID-19 deaths in California makes experts fearful: Although some hope the worst of California’s coronavirus crisis has passed, there are signs the pandemic in the Golden State has merely stabilized, and the worst may be yet to come. Los Angeles Times

University of California President Janet Napolitano is recommending the suspension of the SAT and ACT tests as an admissions requirement until 2024 and possible elimination after that, marking a major decision that could lead to a shakeup of the nation’s standardized testing landscape. Los Angeles Times


Civil rights leaders want charges filed against a Los Angeles police officer shown beating a man in the head in a recent viral video. But Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey says she is waiting for the L.A. Police Department to complete its investigation into the April 27 arrest in Boyle Heights and deliver the findings to her office. Los Angeles Times

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles has assumed a major role in the city’s response to the coronavirus. The independent nonprofit has raised $42 million for response efforts in recent weeks, including a $5-million donation from the state of Qatar. LAist

Noticed a foul odor in West Hollywood? The city may be 10 miles from the nearest beach, but the same tide making waves glow blue at night is responsible for the smell. Wehoville

Endeavor once ruled the agency business. Then came the pandemic and whispers about its future. Many wonder whether the biggest, brashest talent agency owner, which recently announced a round of furloughs and layoffs, can weather the current crisis. Los Angeles Times

Lakers game against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center in 2014.
Remember the old universe, where floor seats at an NBA game meant something? Here’s Endeavor Chief Executive Ari Emanuel, left, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, Endeavor Executive Chairman Patrick Whitesell and actor Jet Li attending a Lakers game against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center in 2014.
(Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images)

Jeffrey Katzenberg blames the pandemic for Quibi’s rough start. “I attribute everything that has gone wrong to coronavirus,” Katzenberg said of the $1.8-billion short-form streaming app, which has seen paltry downloads since launching in April. “Everything.” New York Times

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Across the country, lawyers who represent migrant kids in immigrant detention say the Trump administration is refusing to release children to ready sponsors. Court documents and lawmakers back them up. Meanwhile, Trump administration attorneys have argued in court that children are safer from COVID-19 in custody — even as the government quietly ramps up efforts to deport them. Los Angeles Times


California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his counterparts in four Western states have asked Congress for $1 trillion in COVID-19 pandemic relief for all states and local governments. The governors said the funds would be crucial for public health programs, law enforcement and schools. Los Angeles Times

Major League Baseball wants to play in California ballparks by July, but Newsom won’t commit to their plan. The governor declined to promise that the state’s five MLB teams would be permitted to play in their home ballparks. Los Angeles Times


A massive coronavirus outbreak at a federal prison in Lompoc has left frantic family members desperate for information. “We as families deserve to know how they are. We don’t know anything about my brother.” Noozhawk


Tesla Motors Chief Executive Elon Musk escalated conflict with Alameda County officials on Monday when he declared — in a tweet, of course — that the company’s Fremont, Calif., factory had resumed manufacturing operations despite standing orders to remain closed. Los Angeles Times

California health officials are asking people to avoid weekend trips and summer vacations for now. “This is not the time to go on a trip for recreation or vacation, even to visit family and friends,” said San Francisco’s public health director. Los Angeles Times

Remember that viral job offer to be the innkeeper at a Victorian lighthouse on a speck of an island in San Pablo Bay? This couple got the job, and now they are waiting out the pandemic as the only two residents on a tiny island with a view of San Francisco. San Francisco Chronicle

In the Sierra Nevada foothills, a masked priest offers drive-through Communion to parishioners on Sundays. Sierra Star

For years, Siskiyou County’s public works director worked on clocks at home during his off hours and took classes in clock repair. He finally opened his clock shop on Aug. 2, 2002, the day after his retirement as a public employee. But now Dave Gravenkamp is 81, ready to slow down and looking for a buyer for his Yreka clock repair shop, which draws customers from Redding to Southern Oregon. The Siskiyou Daily News


Want some literary distraction, but nothing too daunting? Here are 50 of the best contemporary novels less than 200 pages. Literary Hub

How to do the dishes faster and more effectively, according to our cooking editor. Los Angeles Times

Plus, another take on doing the dishes, from Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “Washing the dishes is at the same time a means and an end. We do the dishes not only in order to have clean dishes, we also do the dishes just to do the dishes, to live fully in each moment while washing them, and to be truly in touch with life.” Plum Village

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Los Angeles: partly sunny, 71. San Diego: sunny, 73. San Francisco: rain, 62. San Jose: partly sunny, 67. Fresno: partly sunny, 75. Sacramento: rain, 71. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Sharon Markenson:

My family owned Bargaintown Market in Compton, and we had relatives in the San Fernando Valley. To get to Los Angeles, my mother and I took the Red Car, especially around Christmas to see the decorated store windows. We drove over the Sepulveda Pass to visit the Valley relatives. I loved that drive because we were in the mountains! Once they built the 405 Freeway, we never once got to the top of the hill with the Valley spread out below than my father would comment, ‘Look at that view,’ and we would descend into mostly empty land and orange groves.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.