Suffolk County Historical Society seeks residents to submit pandemic stories for archival collection

Few things can be as frustrating for a historian or researcher as looking for archival information about an historic event and finding little or nothing. Victoria Berger can relate to that.

Interested in the parallels between the devastation caused by the Spanish flu of 1918-20 and the current coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Berger was sorely disappointed by the scarcity of material on the Spanish flu’s impact on Long Island a hundred years ago.

“There were references to the Spanish flu … but I wasn’t able to hear the actual accounts of people’s experiences,” said Ms. Berger, the Suffolk County Historical Society executive director.

Ms. Berger said she found more newspaper ads for snake oil treatments for Spanish flu than actual tales of people’s experiences with the flu, the sort of stuff historians treasure. “I couldn’t find the personal anecdotal stories of how our communities are affected,” she said. “That’s where you get a relatable connection to the history.”

A thought popped up: the collection of so-called living histories.

The Riverhead-based Suffolk County Historical Society has put out a call for county residents to submit their own stories about their experiences during this COVID-19 scare so future generations will have an idea of what pandemic life was like.

“The idea isn’t original,” Ms. Berger said. “The original idea came to me from the Association of Public of Historians of New York State. Their idea was historians should be documenting what is going on in their local community. They suggested as historians we should be documenting what we see, but my territory is so large that I thought the best way to approach it was to put it out to the community so we can collect their own stories in their own voices.”

The historical society, whose West Main Street building is closed because of the COVID-19 crisis, is asking people to be a “witness to history” by telling their stories.

“We’re interested in all of it,” Ms. Berger said. “We’re interested in the real-life challenges people have faced battling the virus from home. Just what people are seeing, what they’re hearing, what they’re experiencing. Some of the feedback has been amazing. It’s incredible to see how different pockets of the community are responding to the virus.”

In Islip, for example, she said residents are placing candles out on their porches as symbols of hope. In Bay Shore, home to two hospitals, the local fire department has been sounding sirens every evening at 7 p.m. as a show of gratitude, she said. There are also stories of birthday parades, funeral drive-bys.

“It’s also a little melancholy because hearing stories of people’s hardships is never an easy thing to read,” she added, “and to see the actual impact that this pandemic is having on people’s lives [is] difficult, but the stories of hope to read … those stories can be very inspiring.”

The historical society has also been collecting local newspapers and televised news reports. Ms. Berger said she has driven around, photographing empty streets, hospitals and health clinics.

The project was officially launched two weeks ago and announced on the society’s website and through social media and email blasts. Ms. Berger couldn’t say how many submissions have been received because they’re going through other employees.

People may email their stories to: [email protected]. “Covid-19” should be typed in the subject line and the writer should include his or her location and contact information.

This material will be part of a COVID-19 archival collection.

“These are the kind of stories that if they’re not documented, they’re going to be lost to history,” Ms. Berger said. “These are unprecedented stories that should be documented.”

Future historians will say, “Thank you.”