JEFFERSONVILLE — A Jeffersonville librarian is helping to archive the history of the pandemic in Clark County through a series of oral accounts.
Jen Weidner, assistance reference librarian and local historian at the Jeffersonville Township Library, since May has been conducting interviews to be part of “Pandemic Perspectives: Jeffersonville Residents Recount Their Lives During the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic.”
The project is made possible through a $1,000 grant from the Indiana Genealogical Society and includes so far stories from about a dozen Clark County residents and community leaders about what they’ve experienced since the start of the pandemic.
“I thought ‘this is the perfect thing,’” Weidner said. “I can get paid to interview people about living history, what’s going on at the moment.”
But Weidner said her interest in such a project was sparked before COVID even hit, when library staff were digitizing accounts of the 1937 flood that had been recorded in the 1980s on cassettes.
“As I was doing that, I realized people wouldn’t remember exact things,” she said. “There was lot of good stuff but with this I [thought] ‘we have to do it while it’s happening. We have to do it while they were going through this, while we’re in the middle of a major pandemic. Let’s not wait 25, 30 years when things have calmed down, [when] people can gloss over things.’”
There are 11 interviews to date, which include Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 Judge Vicki Carmichael, Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore, Jeffersonville Fire Chief Shawn Grant and Assistant Chief Jason Sharp and residents Carl Kramer, a historian, and Mary Kramer.
Weidner asked things like when they first heard about COVID, if they thought it would reach the area, and how the course of events has affected their lives. She said it was important to include the perspective of frontline workers like those in heath care and public safety who went into each day not knowing what to expect.
“I wanted perspective from the courts system, what they were going through, how they handled it, how they had to transition so quickly,” she said.
With Carl Kramer, the historian and author, Weidner wanted to know his thoughts on “how is history going to play out; how are we going to look at this in years to come?” she said.
With Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel, “he’s definitely the man at the know in the pandemic,” Weidner said. “He had to say hard things to me about how he didn’t know if people were going to make it, if they were going to have enough ventilators, enough hospital beds.
“It was tough to hear, but I think people need to hear that that’s what we survived, that’s what we prepared for.”
Travis Vasconcelos, director of the Howard Steamboat Museum, participated in the project by offering insight into running a historical nonprofit. While the pandemic meant canceling a lot of programming, it allowed the museum to redesign its gift shop — the entry to the historical home.
Now since reopening, he said guests have doubled what the museum saw in 2019.
“I think people are just so excited to get out right now, and I want them all to come here,” he said, adding that Weidner’s is a very worthy project.
“We looked back to 1918 for so many answers as to how to deal with a pandemic,” he said. “And by her preserving a tiny bit of history, it’s probably going to help somebody down the road when it happens again.”
Library Director David Seckmann said he was glad to see Weidner taking on such an important role in the preservation of local stories.
“I think it’s definitely a really historical time that we wanted to make sure that we were able to capture,” he said, adding that “We have some pretty interesting ways that we can capture local history. In our Makerspace, now we have that recording studio; we have the Indiana Room which is a fantastic resource with a lot of primary documents in there but we’re also able to preserve a lot of our local history with scanned documents that will be available via the internet.”
The pandemic project will also be available this way. Under the grant terms, Weidner has until May 2022 to finish processing and compiling interviews into the completed piece. Each storyteller has also been invited to submit memorabilia. For instance Judge Carmichael provided the order from the Indiana Supreme Court first outlining the courts’ swift changes, from Zoom court hearings to social distancing to limitations on attendance.
Weidner said she has already learned a lot about her community through the stories and that she’s proud to help record them for future generations to glean insight.
“I hope people will look at this and say ‘the people of Southern Indiana are resilient, that no matter what, we come back,’” she said. “We come back better, we come back stronger. We can depend on our emergency management to take care of us, to lead us in the right direction.
“And that just no matter what happens, just be kind to each other, just keep moving forward.”