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Public library project chronicles how Sonoma County has responded to pandemic

Our pandemic stories, much like ourselves, all are different.

Many of us have passed the time by baking or creating art. Others scribbled daily musings into journals. A handful of us separated from our spouses. Some of us lost our jobs. Some of us lost loved ones.

A disparate sampling of stories is part of Sonoma Responds, a pandemic-oriented living history project sponsored by the Sonoma County Library. The project, which started this past spring, bills itself as a “community memory archive” and to this point comprises more than 100 text, art and video submissions from county residents and anyone who has a connection to Sonoma County, including people who once lived here.

According to Project Coordinator Joanna Kolosov, the goal is simple: to document, share and preserve the record of living through a year that has included a pandemic, a social justice movement and wildfires.

“One of the things I like about this is that it’s not static; it’s a snapshot of where we are and really of where we’ve been at every point in this pandemic,” said Kolosov, who is a special collections librarian and archivist at the Sonoma County History and Genealogy Library, part of the Sonoma County Library system. “There’s a different flavor to the reminiscing at the beginning than there is to submissions that came in this fall. Taken as a whole, these stories from today will be sources for researchers tomorrow.”

Understanding ‘Responds’

Sonoma Responds was the brainchild of Connie Williams, a librarian in the history room at the Petaluma Regional Library.

According to Kolosov, Williams at first suggested that the library collect physical, not digital, submissions from library patrons, with the belief that library staff wouldn’t be out of the office for more than a month. But as the pandemic stretched into another month, then another, library staff switched to collecting digital submissions, including art and photography. By May, they decided to put the project online.

“We chose the name Sonoma Responds because we wanted it to be open-ended,” Kolosov remembered. “With all that happened over the course of the year, we had no idea how wise that would be.”

Today, Sonoma Responds works like a living time capsule; through an online submission portal, participants send the library digital copies of the essays, artwork, poetry and more that they’ve created, which become part of a static archive of musings from this defining moment in history.

For now, the public can see the digital versions of these materials on the library’s website. Eventually, when libraries reopen, some of the physical submissions, such as artwork, will be available in person, too.

Down the road, the materials likely will be available through partners such as the Online Archive of California, Calisphere, the county’s Internet Archive and the Digital Public Library of America. Some materials also may be accessible through Sonoma State University. The school’s Center for Community Engagement developed its own initiative (dubbed the Covid Community Diary Project) and partnered with the library this summer.

As Kolosov explained it, Sonoma Responds submissions can include Tweets, protest signs, photos, videos, recipes, writings, drawings, paintings and even shopping lists for quarantine cooking.

Cecelia Sullivan, a 38-year-old artist in Monte Rio, went so far as to create an entire zine.

The zine, “2020: A Reflection from the Month of November,” plays out like a graphic novel and details Sullivan’s experiences over the course of the entire pandemic to date. One panel depicts how she made face coverings to give to local health care workers. Another explains how she used the social media site Twitch to connect with the outside world.

At another point in the zine, Sullivan references how she had to evacuate from the Walbridge fire.

“There have been so many different aspects of (this experience) in Sonoma County,” she said. “I hope my work gives people a better sense of what it was like to be here during this time.”

Year in review

Other submissions have wrapped up the pandemic experience through different media.

Liat Goldman Douglas, a mother and elementary school teacher in Sebastopol, found herself baking and cooking as coping mechanisms and created a website around the hobbies, the Covid Kitchen Chronicle.

The site organizes content by month. Most months include photos with headlines and captions referencing our broader experiences, such as watching briefings from Dr. Anthony Fauci or hearing about health care workers risking everything to treat sick patients. Elsewhere on her site, Douglas included a checklist of frustrations and everyday happenings that prompted her to head to the kitchen. On this list are a drive-by school picture day, DIY haircuts and ash on the car windshield.

Angela Marciano, who lives in Bennett Valley, wrote and illustrated a children’s book titled “Limoncello and the Great Illness.”

Originally, Marciano put together the book for her nieces and nephews. Since then, she has donated copies to two local schools and has submitted copies of the book and 16 of the original paintings to Sonoma Responds.

“I was anxious the first few months (of the pandemic) but was able to do something that was meaningful to me and help me brighten my mood and deal with things,” she said. “This process taught me that you have to help yourself to get through adversity. We have to be good to each other and stay positive and contribute.”

SSU student Rosemary Trenholm interviewed her sister-in-law about the experience of having a baby during COVID-19 and submitted that oral history.

George Bereschik, a former resident of the city of Sonoma who now lives in Santa Fe, kept a detailed journal through the year and parsed out into a separate document all pandemic-related entries from as far back as Feb. 26, the first time he mentioned the virus at all.

“I’m aware of (the virus), but it’s not a pressing issue,” he wrote ominously on that day.

Holes in the approach

Though the Sonoma Responds project has found widespread appeal from Petaluma to Cloverdale, it has not yet fulfilled every aspect of its founding mission.

The one aspect that’s lacking: diversity.

The online submission portal is in English and Spanish, and the program does specifically call for amplifying and documenting the experiences of “Black, Indigenous, and folks of color, LGBTQ+ and disabled individuals and communities.” So far, however, except for the zine from Sullivan, who is Black, most of the submissions have been from white people. Kolosov said the cultural representation among current submissions is a problem, and as of press time the library had not gotten a single submission in Spanish.

To address that, the library is planning some targeted outreach.

A big part of this strategy includes gathering online content that reflects ongoing virtual conversations among members of the local Latino community on subjects of COVID-19, racial injustice and voting rights. One of these sources is the bilingual “Conversación Comunitaria” from Corazón Healdsburg, a nonprofit that serves the Latino population in North County. Another is a video series from NorCal public radio that features Latino community leaders discussing the county’s COVID-19 response.

Glaydon de Freitas, CEO of Corazón, said he appreciated the library’s efforts to make Sonoma Responds more representative of all residents.

“Crises do not impact us all in the same way,” he said. “It’s important that we acknowledge that and share the diversity of experiences through this pandemic.”

Kolosov said another part of the strategy is a direct appeal to individual Latino leaders to get the word out.

“We’ve had to go back to the table and think about how we try to reach this community,” she said. “We recognize they have been disproportionately affected by COVID. Perhaps the time for reflection for them won’t come until later.”

What’s next

The library plans to continue Sonoma Responds until the pandemic winds down.

From there, Kolosov said she envisions a combination of the online archive and in-person exhibits at museums and library branches across the county. She added that the county could build programming around the material as well — a lecture series, an online virtual program, even a classroom curriculum.

“We’ll get through this,” she said. “When we do, this collection will serve as a way for us to look back, remember and learn.”

To participate in Sonoma Responds, visit sonomalibrary.org/sonoma-responds-community-archive.

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