November 27, 2021

Library to archive COVID-19 stories

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Priscilla Berggren Thomas, director of Phillips Free Library in Homer, at her desk on Jan. 5. The library wants your COVID-19 story.

It drives Priscilla Berggren-Thomas’ husband nuts: She’s always relating a story behind an event.

“I am not a historian. But I am a writer and a storyteller,” she said. “To me, I can’t make a connection without telling the story behind it. It’s the story that makes us human. It’s the story that allows us to relate to one another.”

The Homer woman, director of Phillips Free Library, wants to know: “What is your COVID-19 story?”

“Where were you when everything was shut down? What was it like, teaching kids at home? What was it like the first time going to the store and needing a mask and hand sanitizer,”

People don’t necessarily have to write a memoir or essay. Any format is suitable: picture, poem, journal entry, short story, painting, photo — even science fiction.

The Phillips Free Library in Homer is collecting it all, from Cortland County and beyond, and will archive the stories on the internet in a project called “Stories from Behind the Mask.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Writing is one way to record a COVID-19 experience. The Phillips Free Library is looking for experiences by Cortland County people. Stories can be told by journal entries, poetry, photos, art and even science fiction stories, as well as traditional stories.

“What was your experience living in the last several months that defines this time and this experience?” Berggren-Thomas asked.

Library officials will collect material for the next six months to a year.

“The project was Priscilla’s brainchild, and we talked about wanting to gather stories as a kind of ‘time capsule’ so that people can read and assess what life was like during this time,” said Meghan Aagaard of McGraw, a member of the library’s board. “It’s also a way to create art together during a time when we can’t gather.”

“A COVID experience I’ve had is losing someone I love to COVID, just a few weeks ago,” Aagaard said. “It was heartbreaking and maddening at the same time — saying goodbye over the phone, not being able to gather to mourn, and relying on healthcare workers to really carry the burden of this.”

And also: “Seeing people out in public who are not wearing masks, who are spreading misinformation about the virus and the vaccines, is maddening. … I’ve been writing some pieces throughout the pandemic and I can’t wait to see what other people write and create in response to this.”

“We need to write these stories down. We need to share them. It’s critical,” Berggren-Thomas said.

Berggren-Thomas received a $3,000 grant from the American Library Association for the project.

“We are going to be creating a website to archive all the stories,” she said. “It will take time to get that going but once its up, it will be a place where people can go and read other people’s stories.”

Anyone can do this. “We want people from the Cortland community, but we have had people from Skaneateles submit a story.”

Staff and volunteers will collect stories from those who may have a hard time writing them down.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Evelyn Hull, circulation staff, at the front door of Phillips Free Library in Homer. The library will archive people’s experiences with COVID-19.

Berggren-Thomas said she’s reached out to teachers in schools and is looking for input from business people.

Jennifer Greenfield, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Homer Junior High School, is alerting all the teachers in her district. Greenfield said it was tough teaching and mothering at home.

“My husband works from home and travels frequently, but he’s been home since March. I have two kids, ages 7 and 10, and they were home learning last spring as I was teaching from home. It was so overwhelming at the time, but we just took it day by day.”

Her kids are happy to be able to go to school five days a week — when they can, she said. “They love seeing their friends and getting out of the house.”

Greenfield misses Sunday dinners with extended family. Now they have Zoom calls. Her daughter’s seventh birthday was marked by a birthday parade on Easter.

“We are living history. Our stories will be shared with future generations of how we came together as families and communities to help each other out,” Greenfield said.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

  • The Phillips Free Library in Homer is collecting stories from the pandemic, from Cortland County and beyond, for “Stories from Behind the Mask.”
  • Any format is suitable: memoir, essay picture, poem, journal entry, short story, painting, photo — even science fiction.
  • People can submit to www.phillipsfreelibrary.org.

The Phillips Free Library is loaded with COVID-19 safety guidelines, disinfectant and book-handling procedures.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

A special box at the Phillips Free Library for books that will eventually be reshelved.

“The funny thing is the number of people that walk by and don’t read those signs,” said Berggren-Thomas, a former nurse. “We are the sign queens. I am not going to be accused of not communicating reality to people. So we have signs for everything.”

She could probably write a book on her experiences with COVID-19, she said.

“When everything was shut down, and it happened quickly, we were told, ‘You have to work at home,’” Berggren-Thomas said.

She lives in a rural area with little access to the internet. She had one day to set up a work station without the proper tools.

It took a month. She was trying to get an internet hot spot and the phone company made a mistake with her email address. Trying to get through the problem took weeks. She finally had to buy a new hot spot and re-register it. Then it took time to get her money back for the first hot spot.

“Of everything that has happened, there’s the added problem of trying to get technology to work on top of COVID-19,” she said.

On the plus side, the admitted introvert really appreciated being at home with her dog.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

A book inspired by COVID19 at Phillips Free Library.