Sag Harbor Historical Society, Library Document The Age Of COVID-19

The Sag Harbor Historical Society is encouraging residents to submit journals of their experiences during the coronavirus pandemic for its archives. STEPHEN J. KOTZ

If given the chance, most people would be happy to forget the past couple of months. COVID-19 has claimed more American lives than the Vietnam War, unemployment has reached Great Depression-era levels, and you can’t even watch a ballgame or go to the movies to take your mind off things.

So, why then, are organizations like the Sag Harbor Historical Society and the John Jermain Memorial Library urging people to contribute their thoughts and observations, photographs, and other memorabilia to archival projects they have launched in this depressing time?

“What spurred the idea is we are a historical society,” said Nancy French Achenbach, the president of the historical society of its Sag Harbor’s Journals 2020 initiative that is collecting written submissions at “Hopefully, this village will be here in 150 years and people will be able to read about this incredible, horrible thing that has happened.”

Ms. Achenbach said the historical society is fortunate to have in its collection the diaries of Annie Cooper Boyd, who described what it was like to live in Sag Harbor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The realization that people are no longer routinely committing their experiences to paper means one of the society’s primary sources of documentation may cease to exist in the coming years. That spurred the society to launch the endeavor, which will publish the contributions on its website, , and preserve them in digital files.

“I think all of us who are involved in working with a preserved past understand the value of the history that’s being made right now,” said library director Catherine Creedon. “All of us know what we collect now will be a benefit to the East End 100 years from now.”

At the library, Rebecca Grabie, the local content librarian and archivist, didn’t wait for direction, she launched the “COVID-19 Archive” project in mid-March, as the first wave of New Yorkers streamed east and people debated not for how long the state would be on lockdown, but whether it would be or not.

While her archival work typically focuses on the past, “I’m also documenting what is going on now,” she said. “I thought this was a perfect opportunity to get rolling.”

She has been collecting photographs, newspaper articles, and other submissions, including takeout menus, and closed signs from local businesses that have been forced to lock their doors as part of the effort to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Wonda Miller, the library’s assistant director and liaison to local business, has launched “Local Spotlight,” a series of video interviews that will first appear live on Zoom and then be available on YouTube. The first interview, with Lisa Field, owner of the Sag Harbor Variety Store, aired last week, and Helen Atkinson Barnes of The Retreat was interviewed this week. Nada Barry, an owner of the Wharf Shop, will be interviewed next Tuesday.
The idea of the series, Ms. Miller said in an email, is “to create original content for future researchers to get a real sense of what is happening in this historic moment for individuals.”

She added, “It is also a way to create community connections now, when so many vulnerable people may feel isolated. We want to bridge that gap and foster a sense of community, and a feeling that no one is alone in dealing with this.”
Information about the library’s programs can be found at

Two of the first people to contribute to the historical society’s journal project are Barbara Schwartz, a retired teacher, and Jim Marquardt, a retired advertising executive and columnist for The Sag Harbor Express. Both are historical society board members.

Ms. Schwartz wrote about how her family’s planned celebration of her 90th birthday last month had to be canceled because of the pandemic.

“I have lived through the Depression, stock market crash, World War II, 9/11 in NYC, and I will survive this,” she wrote.

On her birthday, she Facetimed with family and friends and ate cupcakes she had baked for the event. Midway through the celebration, “my doorbell rang, and out in the road in front of my house were my neighbors, about a dozen of them, to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me,” she wrote. “What a day it was. Despite the gloom and darkness, there was light and gladness tonight. Thank you, Sag Harbor.”

“In the future, when we look back at this time, it will give us an idea of what life was like, how people endured total isolation,” Ms. Schwartz said. “Our great-grandchildren will be interested in what was happening at this time.”

Mr. Marquardt has been wintering in Longboat Key, Florida, and now finds himself marooned there because of the pandemic.

“I was a child during World War II. Even then, we felt we had some control over our lives,” he said. “The difference now, is we feel out of control. No one knows what is coming and what it’s going to be like when it gets here.”

In his entry for the historical society’s archive, he describes a “surreal” world and describes how he worries about his children and grandchildren, especially his daughter, Julie, an occupational therapist in Boston who risks exposure to the virus daily.

“We are lucky to be able to walk the beach every day and watch the pelicans and dolphins. They don’t seem to be concerned about what’s happening to us humans, maybe figuring that it serves us right, after what we’ve done to our earth,” he wrote. “As we pass the few people on the beach, some of them veer further away with an embarrassed smile …”

“This is a historic moment in our lives,” Mr. Marquardt said. “I think a lot of communities are going to be doing the same thing.”