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New Acquisition: COVID-19 audio diaries from healthcare workers

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This guest post was authored by Jesse Hocking, an archivist at the American Folklife Center who was centrally involved with the acquisition of the collection he describes below.

Illustration depicting five healthcare workers
Illustration created by Lindsay Mound for the Nocturnists project. Image courtesy of The Nocturnists.

In March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread widely in the United States, The Nocturnists, a podcast and medical storytelling community, posted the following message on their website:

Dear fellow healthcare workers,

The Nocturnists is looking for people who are interested in keeping an ‘audio diary’ about their experience working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’re not looking for perfect, polished stories. We just want to understand your raw experience. We wouldn’t be surprised if your world feels surreal, weirdly normal, or even paradoxical. We want to hear about the moments of fear, boredom, adrenaline, panic, heroism, frustration, innovation, ambivalence, or deranged joy. All can be true.

Just know that whatever you are experiencing, you are not alone, and The Nocturnists is here to hold you in community.

These diaries were used as the foundation of a ten-part documentary series titled “Stories from a Pandemic.” The founder and host of The Nocturnists, Dr. Emily Silverman, closes the final episode of the series affirming the project’s impact, “Over ten weeks we received more than 700 stories. Many were submitted anonymously, but stitched together they formed a tapestry that showed the world how COVID hit us as a community of healthcare workers. Thank you for sharing your voice.”

A woman sits on a low stone wall in a garden setting.
Emily Silverman, MD. Photo by Paul Gargagliano.

Production limitations only allowed for a fraction of the diaries to be included in the ten broadcast episodes, but The Nocturnists has donated the collection of over 700 raw audio recordings to the American Folklife Center. The recordings will add to the Center’s significant oral history holdings documenting the collective experience of crises, such as the Surviving Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Houston collection and the Benjamin Luft collection of 9-11 first responders’ oral histories.

The “Stories from a Pandemic” collection is unique in the self-documentary aspect of the recordings. Dr. Silverman instructed participants, “You don’t have to prepare anything, you don’t have to write anything, you don’t have to rehearse. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. All we ask is that you come home after your shift, find a quiet place, turn on your phone, and just talk.”

The response to Dr. Silverman’s invitation is an incredibly candid set of private moments from healthcare workers facing daily tragedy not only in their professional lives but personally as well. In several recordings, diarists describe watching the news of outbreaks unfold across the country and anxiously anticipating their community being overwhelmed by the virus. Soon these are followed by stories of overflowing ICUs and shortages of everything from COVID tests to hand sanitizer to ventilators. Through all of this, there are also stories of healthcare professionals’ profound connections with their patients and the responsibility felt for these lives threatened by an unknown virus. One diarist concluded, it’s “such a horrifying privilege to be a physician these days.”

Once the collection is processed, the recordings will be available for listening in their entirety. At the moment, you can see a map of selected contributors and diaries here.

The Library will preserve the published podcast itself, and The Nocturnists website will be captured through the LC Web Archives program. AFC is extremely grateful to the Nocturnists team for their work this past year and for their donation of this incredible documentation of healthcare workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

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