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Museum, library seek stories of pandemic for future generations

Students encouraged to share their experiences

Poignant submissions from Kent County students are sprinkled throughout the growing collections of COVID-19 stories on the websites of both the Grand Rapids Public Library and the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Though the musings are often about ordinary circumstances, that’s exactly what makes them valuable, said curators at both organizations.

Julie Tabberer, manager of the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections for the Grand Rapids Public Library, said the student submissions strike a chord with her

For the Public Library project, a high school sophomore said: “I have been spending my time with my family, going on bike rides … playing with my cat. I miss being at school more than I thought I would.”

They’re looking for your stories 

Both the Grand Rapids Public Library and Grand Rapids Public Museum encourage teachers and students to contact them for more ideas about how to participate in their projects. 

“If any teachers have questions or want to talk about projects, send us an email at stories@grpl.org. We’re happy to talk more!” said Julie Tabberer of the GRPL. 

Representatives from the GRPM said that the gallery of what has already been submitted would be a great resource to visit for inspiration, and that the prompts on the collections page are intended to help people reflect and guide them in the types of stories they may want to share. People also can call the GRPM at 616-929-1809 for more advice and ideas.

How to submit stories to the Grand Rapids Public Museum
How to submit stories to the Grand Rapids Public Library

[Everything about this] has surprised me! I’m not going back to school this year which is probably the main thing. It’s hard to believe I just don’t get to finish the school year.

– submitted by Jane, a high school senior

And a high school senior wrote: “My friends and I are lucky enough to be able to text and call each other regularly, so we keep in touch. Sometimes I go for walks since the streets are mostly empty. We’re all struggling, so we’re trying to support each other as much as possible.”

Over on the Public Museum website, Dylan Fischer submitted a photo, taken by his dad, of his biweekly Dungeons & Dragons game with a group of friends on Zoom.

An eighth grader at the Grand Rapids Public Museum School, Dylan admitted that submitting something to the GRPM website for future posterity was kind of a natural, but he joked about how people from the future might assess the image.

“I guess they would think that it would be impossible to entertain yourself with such barbaric technology,” he said with a laugh.

Related Story: Area organizations offer educational projects, learning activities to teachers, students

Erin Koren, director of education for the Grand Rapids Public Museum, said it’s important to capture how resilient local teachers, students and families have been in responding to school closures

Regular Moments Offer Powerful Insights

For Alex Forist, chief curator for the GRPM, Fischer’s quip was funny, but he added that it is important for the museum to capture stories and photos as they happen, including D&D on Zoom.

The goal, he said, is to capture as many voices as possible: the frontline workers, the families suddenly homeschooling, the small business owners, the people learning to work remotely and, yes, local students.

“We want to do our part in making sure that we’re documenting history as it happens,” Forist said. “We hope to collect a variety of stories from community members so we can accurately portray what life was truly like during the pandemic, while also creating an archive for future generations to remember this time.”

Julie Tabberer, manager of the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections for the GRPL, said the student submissions strike a chord with her.

“Regular moments don’t tend to make it into our official historical record,” she said, “but they can be powerful in understanding someone’s life.”

Both Tabberer and Forist said these projects are of value now and could become even more valuable as memories of 2020 fade. 

“We are able to take submissions and turn them around and get them live online in about a day,” Forist said. “People who submit stories and photos and videos can see their contributions and know they are valued. In the long term, I think historians and researchers will appreciate the primary sources collected in the midst of the crisis.”

Education as a whole has come to face the importance of schools, what schools have been dependent on to provide, and how unequal our country still is. There are students we haven’t heard from since school has closed. We know that students are on the whole not getting the level of instruction that could be provided in a classroom.

– submitted by Alexandra, a school staff member
Alex Forist, chief curator for the Grand Rapids Public Museum, said it has been important for the museum to capture stories and photos as they happen and to capture as many voices as possible

The Resiliency of Teachers, Students and Families

Tabberer agreed.

“For future generations, for those who did not live through the pandemic, the stories will enable them to connect with us, and to have a window into what this time feels like,” she said. “When I study history, what I want most is to know what it was really like to be a person in that time, to place myself in someone else’s shoes. Nothing can fully accomplish that, of course, but these stories will help historians come close.”

Both the library and museum are grateful to be getting submissions from local students and hope they will continue.

Said Erin Koren, director of education for the GRPM, “It is important to capture how challenging it has been, but how resilient local teachers, students and families have been in responding to school closures and learning from home.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan hails from Exeter, Ontario, but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985. He is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop! Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both freelance writing and public relations work, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level. In the summer of 2019, he began his own freelance writing and communications business. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio or email Phil.

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