In 2006, in response to the avian flu, the U.S. government published the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza Implementation Plan to outline how the country could prevent and prepare for a pandemic.

To help create the plan, historians were hired to analyze how people had responded to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Those historians noted that communities that practiced social distancing at the time — though the term had not yet entered the contemporary lexicon — tended to have lower infection rates. Historians were able to show stark contrasts between infection rates in communities that waited a few weeks to act and those that acted right away.

That information was never put into practice for the avian flu, which never reached pandemic levels, but the insights of historians have been available to policy makers during the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The 1918 flu is where we get a lot of the information about the importance of acting early, of shutting down bars and restaurants and schools,” said Leif Fredrickson, a history professor at the University of Montana. “There were cities like Denver and Seattle that acted quickly and mandated masks, and they had much lower fatality rates. The other thing historians found was that those places that acted quickly often eased up on their regulations and then experienced a second wave and had to shut down again. It’s exactly what’s happening now.” 

To understand public response to the 1918 flu, historians had to sift through whatever health records and newspaper clippings happened to be available, most of which had not been collected or organized intentionally. Now, during the COVID pandemic, historians and archivists — who are often regarded as dealing solely with the distant past — are taking the opportunity to collect such documents purposefully, in the present, for the future. 

“So often, what public historians end up doing is using source documents that someone else collected who may or may not have been a historian,” said Missoula County Commissioner David Strohmaier. “Certainly this is the case in the 1918 pandemic. It’s not as though there was a historical research task force that was pulled together and assembled a body of documentation that we can now easily draw from for our own context. We’re having to make sense of documents decades or, in the case of the 1918 flu, a century after the fact.”

As a county commissioner who previously served two four-year terms on the Missoula City Council, Strohmaier is deeply engaged in public policy, but he’s also a historian who worked for Missoula’s Historical Research Associates for 13 years. He said he’s always looking for ways to expand the role of Missoula County in the stewardship of heritage resources. When COVID-19 began affecting Montana, he saw an opportunity, and a need. 

“It creates this whole timeline. You can see the spikes, you can trace a day-by-day account through the meeting notes of how we were responding in public and behind the scenes.”

Matt Lautzenheiser, executive director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula

“It occured to me that this is the moment for public historians to step up,” he said. 

In late March, when Gov. Steve Bullock directed Montanans to stay at home to slow the spread of COVID-19, Missoula County assembled an incident command team composed of operations, planning and logistics units. The structure is familiar to Strohmaier, who has also worked in fire management for the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. In fire management, he said, a documentation team is embedded in the planning unit. 

“I got to thinking,” he said. “How could we integrate historical documentation into our incident command structure in a way that we’ve typically not done in the past?”

With that idea in mind, Strohmaier put together a COVID collection team with the help of Alan Newell, a public historian active with downtown Missoula and UM projects, and Matt Lautzenheiser, executive director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. The team includes UM’s Fredrickson (disclosure: the reporter’s brother); Donna McCrea, head of archives and special collections at the Mansfield Library; and Kalina Wickham, program director for the Downtown Missoula Partnership. 

They began collecting documents, including internal memos from health care facilities, Missoula County meeting notes, and pandemic-related video footage and journal entries submitted by community members. They also reached out to partners such as UM’s history department and business and health care organizations. Some of the materials have to do with governmental procedures and protocols during the pandemic, including meeting notes discussing mask mandates and directives from the governor’s office regarding shutdown restrictions. Lautzenheiser, for instance, volunteered to sit in on city and county meetings and is collecting county and city press releases, official and unofficial correspondence between county employees and meeting agendas. He also takes notes at police and sheriff’s department meetings.

“It creates this whole timeline,” Lautzenheiser said. “You can see the spikes, you can trace a day-by-day account through the meeting notes of how we were responding in public and behind the scenes.”

He is also organizing for the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula a Zootown Arts Community Center collection of children’s artwork about the pandemic for a future exhibit.

The Mansfield Library Archives and Special Collections has set up an online portal where people can submit documentation of anything that speaks to pandemic times: photographs of people working from home, images of empty store shelves, closed playgrounds and messages of hope in store windows. The library is also collecting a searchable archive of diary entries, video clips (neighborhoods howling for health care workers, children talking about COVID), business records, newsletters and social media posts from groups formed during the pandemic. McCrea said some items, especially sensitive internal memos from health care facilities, will be kept confidential for the time being. 

“It’s a digital preservation platform that has the capacity to maintain these materials into the future,” McCrea said. “Digital documents don’t last as long as paper because files corrupt, but this platform stores multiple copies in multiple locations.”

Wickham’s role on the COVID collection team is liaison to Missoula businesses. The Downtown Missoula Partnership acts as an umbrella for the Missoula Downtown Association, the Missoula Downtown Foundation and the Business Improvement District — organizations that already have connections to public history projects. For the collection project, the DMP is archiving its own correspondence with partners, including with the mayor’s office. 

But its biggest project is working with the organization’s 550 members to collect press releases, internal emails dealing with COVID protocols and anything else that documents how businesses are responding and adapting to the pandemic. 

“The idea was to collect everything we could,” Wickham said. “If we decided we didn’t need something, we could always toss it out later. So we collected anything that had to do with lockdown. And anything about how, later, those businesses started opening back up.”

In March and April, several Missoula retailers started having weekly Zoom meetings to talk with each other about their COVID-related challenges. Wickham recorded those meetings, which will will be archived. And they’ll provide more than just a peek into protocols. 

They’ll document business owner attitudes and the ways in which local businesses adapted, often with innovation. Wickham said shop owners swapped ideas on how to keep their businesses afloat, developing delivery services and online platforms. Missoula boutique Betty’s Divine, for instance, started delivering clothing to doorsteps and offering Facetime fittings for clients — all novel strategies for the store.

But Zoom meetings and memos tell only part of the story, so an oral history intern from UM’s history department worked with DMP to interview the Missoula Paddleheads (formerly Osprey) baseball team, the Dram Shop bar, the Runner’s Edge apparel store, the nonprofit Arts Missoula and a band called Letter B about their experiences. 

A sign of the pandemic at Missoula’s Zootown Arts Community Center. Credit: Erika Fredrickson

Wickham said the Paddleheads offer an example of successful adaptation. Like all minor league baseball organizations, the Paddleheads, formerly known as the Osprey, had to cancel their games during the pandemic. The situation looked grim, but the organization transformed its field into a socially distanced space hosting trivia nights and movie nights in partnership with the Roxy Theater. The events sold out consistently, and the programming was extended throughout the summer and fall.

“I don’t think any other minor league baseball team around the states adapted as quickly as they did,” Wickham said.

The collection and organization of that information will have several uses. It will provide future historians with a record of contemporary attitudes and actions. It may also offer guidance for retailers and venues in the future — even the near future — if new shutdowns are implemented. And for the DMP, it’s another source of information that can be used in interpretative public history projects. 

“Our thinking is that, down the road, we’ll do a downtown interpretative exhibit on COVID-19 and how businesses adapted,” Wickham said. “What I like best about the documentation process is we know this is something that will be important for the future, and we can look at it as history in the making.”

The notion that such a collection has practical applications is one the team has worked hard to get across to people they are collecting from, including health care workers. It doesn’t look like “history” as a lot of people understand it. 

“We don’t wait for something to age,” said Alan Newell. “Public historians are involved in real-time decision making and public administration. Many of the people I went to graduate school with [in history] did not end up as historians. They ended up in government or some other agency or group, but they used their historical training nonetheless. Dave [Strohmaier] and I talked to a lot of people early on, and we were trying to get their thoughts on the immediacy of this crisis and developing protocols, and some of them were saying, ‘Well, I don’t think of what I have to offer as of historical importance.’ But it is!”

UM is currently working to establish a public history certificate for undergraduates, and the history department has already utilized some of the collected documentation in public history coursework. This summer, for instance, Fredrickson taught a summer session class called “COVID-19 and History: Disease and Disaster in Perspective.” 

“We look at other ways to investigate history, but also other ways to convey it,” Newell said. “How do you incorporate people’s views, perspective, memories, stories into a framework that actually has some sort of coherency and some sort of rigor to understand what’s going on at this moment in time?”

COVID collection projects like Missoula’s have sprung up across the country and around the world over the last several months. Stephanie Rowe, executive director of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), said there was a lull when initial stay-at-home orders and shutdowns were instated as everyone dealt with the pandemic’s new reality, but then public historians began to take action. The council, a membership association based at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has been keeping track of such projects and tapping into conversations about public history since its founding in 1980. Its goal has been to encourage collaboration between historians and the public, and the pandemic has only clarified the potential of those partnerships.

“There are new connections and deeper conversations and more cross-institutional work being done right now,” Rowe said. “And we’re seeing so many of our sites and museums doing incredible groundbreaking work that used to be restricted to an in-person visitor. There are issues related to that: huge layoffs and furloughs in the public history sector, and especially in museums that are reliant on admissions revenue. So it’s complicated, and it’s not all good, but it is exciting to see these conversations drawing in more people from broader geographic areas than they ever did before.”

“Dave [Strohmaier] and I talked to a lot of people early on, and we were trying to get their thoughts on the immediacy of this crisis and developing protocols, and some of them were saying, ‘Well, I don’t think of what I have to offer as of historical importance.’ But it is!”

Public historian Alan Newell

Rowe said the COVID situation has also driven new conversations about the ethics of collecting, which can be complicated when collectors are working with people in crisis. There are mental health issues. There are surveillance and privacy issues. There are issues about who gets to tell their stories and whose voices might go unheard. NCPH dedicates much of its virtual roundtables and space on its History@Work blog to such discussions.

“I think it opens the public history field up to some real reckoning about the structures of our own organizations and whose stories we tell and don’t tell,” she said.

In addition, Rowe said, public history projects carry the possibility of creating systemic change.

“The potential for these collecting projects to influence how practitioners approach providing medical care could be revolutionary,” Rowe said. “COVID is opening up a lot of reflection that underserved populations have known existed for a long time, but no one in positions of privilege recognized or really totally understood. I see this potentially as a gamechanger for that, and would hope it could be used that way.”

Missoula’s COVID collection team is one of the first projects Rowe became aware of, and she said it stands out among other projects that are solely focused on collecting community stories. And it’s distinctive in that its goal is not just to gather archival material for historians and researchers down the road, but for the collection process itself to be organized and integrated into policy and protocol plans now and in the future. That will take more robust resources and support, Strohmaier said, but he hopes to see it happen.

Missoula already has several public history players working in the policy space, including Missoula City-County Health Director Ellen Leahy. Several years ago, Leahy wrote extensively about how Missoula responded to the Spanish flu through ordinances, and how quarantine fatigue and the end of World War I led to another wave of infections. Strohmaier said having these public historians embedded in agencies and organizations, and the continuous documentation of current responses to COVID-19, are paramount to realizing the project’s potential.

“I think this is where the true value of public historians comes to bear, is that what we’re doing is not creating a feedback loop for other historians, but doing something that could be used by public health officials, policy makers, and not necessarily decades out, but right now,” Strohmaier said. “This documentation project will be documenting the community’s response to COVID-19, but also documenting how we’re going about documenting it. This is a story about how folks who recognized the power and importance of history are coming together. With every passing day that a community is not doing what we’re doing here in Missoula, it makes it difficult to recreate the storyline of how your community responded to COVID-19.”

latest stories

Lost, and found

Missoula author Debra Magpie Earling carried the seeds of a story about Sacajewea for years. When she walked away from teaching at the University of Montana, she finally made the mental space to bring it to fruition. The result is this year’s “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea.” Earling talks about imagination and history with MTFP…

Pistachio brittle: The holiday candy to give as a gift 

Most of us have had peanut brittle, a classic holiday treat. But have you ever swapped out the peanuts for pistachios? It adds a fun flavor and provides a remarkable color contrast with the amber candy. If you have a parent, sibling or friend who’s notoriously hard to buy for, it might be time to…

Erika Fredrickson is a freelance journalist based in Missoula, where she writes about technology, the environment, and lifestyle. She was the arts editor at the Missoula Independent for 10 years before it was shut down in 2018.