Writing History at YSU: Library Archives Pandemic Stories

By Sydney A. Stalnecker 

William F. Maag Jr. Library’s Archives and Special Collections began the COVID-19 Youngstown State University Experience Repository in April 2020. The repository allows for students and employees to contribute written accounts of their personal experience with the pandemic. 

Cassie Nespor, curator of the Maag archives, is conducting the collection for the repository. The materials submitted and collected are kept digitally and will be made available for future researchers to get a well-rounded understanding of the pandemic’s impact on campus.

“A repository is a safe place where you keep things,” Nespor said. “In our work it is a synonym for the archives.”

 She divided the repository into two sections: the university’s response to keep the public informed and the personal experiences of students and employees.

Lisa Garofali, an assistant archivist at Maag, has helped Nespor collect materials since the beginning.

“It started in the spring when everyone was sent home,” Garofali said. “At the time, we all knew this was something unusual, and it was an event that was significantly affecting people and their lives.”

In April 2020, they began collecting YSU’s response to the pandemic through websites, emails, documents and posts from social media.  

“I save the dashboard every week in a PDF. I save the COVID website that we have. I saved information from the Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety Department,” Nespor said.

YSU President Jim Tressel makes an appearance in the repository as well. Nespor saved the videos he posted on social media platforms and videos of him at town hall meetings.

The only physical materials Nespor collected are the care packages given out by the university upon the students’ return to campus. These included face masks and hand sanitizer.

Nespor realized collecting the weekly campus reports, Tressel’s social media posts and the care packages was not capturing the entirety of the pandemic’s effect on campus. It left out the personal experience of students and employees.

“As the summer wore on, I thought it would really be nice to be able to collect how people are responding to that,” Nespor said. “How they feel, how they shifted classes, what kinds of problems that created for teachers and for the students.” 

She began asking students, faculty and staff to write personalized, first-person accounts related to their COVID-19 experience and submit them using the form located on the homepage of Maag’s website. This is an ongoing collection and Nespor is still looking for submissions.

“There should be a web link for a form that you fill out, and you type your COVID story,” Garofali said. “If you have any other type of media you would like to send us, whether it be music or a video, you could email the archives.”

The document on the website provides suggestions for possible story ideas. Students can write  about the shift to remote learning in the spring or studying and working from home. Any student who worked at an off-campus job — particularly in the service industry — is welcome to share their experience. The repository is also interested in collecting how students stayed in touch with friends and family during this time.

A photo or video is not required, and there’s no word limit for the stories submitted directly to the library archives.

Nespor reached out to Shelley Blundell, who is an assistant professor of journalism and communications and the adviser for YO Magazine, a bi-annual publication. Together, they had the idea to publicize the collection and create another outlet for student submissions. 

As the magazine adviser, Blundell proposed the idea to Zach Mosca, the editor-in-chief of the magazine. He agreed to dedicate the spring 2021 edition of YO Magazine to “COVID Voices.”

“Every story in the magazine is going to be about somebody’s experience with COVID-19 or how COVID-19 has affected campus, has affected the local Youngstown area, etc.,” Mosca said.

Mosca suggests writing about someone who had COVID-19, the university’s response to COVID-19 or interviewing a frontline healthcare worker in Youngstown about their experience.

Stories for the magazine must be between 750-1,000 words and include at least one photo and video. Stories that include an interview or are about a specific person should include a headshot of the person featured. Any story submitted to the magazine should be written in third person. 

The special edition of the magazine will highlight the COVID-19 YSU Experience Repository, but it will not be included in the repository. The archives already have a different collection for all editions of YO Magazine.

Students, faculty and staff can submit their stories to the COVID-19 YSU Experience Repository through the form available at maag.ysu.edu.

For students interested in writing a story for the YO Magazine, contact editor-in-chief Zach Mosca at ztmosca@student.ysu.edu or Jake Brandenstein, assistant editor, at jdbrandenstein@student.ysu.edu

Cassie Nespor collected a care package given out by YSU for the COVID-19 YSU Experience Repository. Photo courtesy of Cassie Nespor.