2020 has been a remarkable year. It’s the kind of year that historians will write bestselling books about, as they have for the 1918 influenza pandemic or the global tumult of 1968. The list of events is long and includes pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong; disastrous fires in Australia; impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump; the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns, and continued aftermath; the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the global protests against racism and police brutality that followed; the stock market crash; the soaring profits of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations; more wildfires – unprecedented in scale and intensity due to human-induced climate change – on the west coast of the United States and in South America; a divisive U.S. presidential election campaign; and potentially catastrophic hurricanes on the U.S. Gulf Coast, with more storms on the way.
The list continues to grow. With no end of the pandemic in sight (at least in the United States), the northern hemisphere is bracing for a wintertime resurgence of the virus and long months of separation from friends, family, and community. The U.S. presidential election in November promises to be contentious. While President Trump seeks to rally his base, detractors continue to decry his racism, his climate change denial, his efforts to undermine the U.S. Postal Service, and his authoritarian tendencies. Some, including former President Barack Obama, have even warned that the future of democracy in the United States is at stake.1 The pandemic has exposed multiple fault lines – including systemic racism, gender inequality, and massive economic disparities – that continue to shape societies around the world, prompting some to imagine what a post-pandemic world could (or should) look like.
Indeed, future historians will have much to ponder about 2020 and its significance as a watershed moment in history. They will also have an abundance of sources to consider. The internet continues to democratize access to information and provides a ready platform for any person or organization with an agenda to promote. The proliferation of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and “fake news” will further complicate efforts to understand this moment in history. Despite these challenges, on the surface it seems that access to sources of information will not be a problem.
Yet, as historian Jill Lepore reminds us, historical sources do not preserve themselves, even if they are posted on the internet. Historians of the future will continue to rely on librarians and archivists to preserve and provide access to the primary sources they need for their research. In recognition of this fact, cultural institutions around the world have launched collecting initiatives to make sure that the historical record of the unprecedented events of 2020 is not lost to future generations. To track these documentation efforts, the International Federation for Public History and the Made By Us consortium created a map, which now includes information about almost five hundred different collecting projects. In the U.S. and Canada, colleges and universities, local public libraries, state historical societies, and federal governments are all getting involved.
At the beginning of August, sixteen Anabaptist and Mennonite archives and history organizations in the United States and Canada joined these efforts by launching Anabaptist History Today (AHT). AHT is a collaborative storytelling project that seeks to document the events of 2020 “through an Anabaptist lens.” We created a website where people in the Anabaptist and Mennonite community can submit stories and digital files (photos, audio recordings, videos, screenshots, and more) to illustrate how the events of 2020 have impacted their lives, their congregations, and their communities. After volunteer curators have a chance to review submissions, we post them to the public on an exhibit page.
People and organizations across the Anabaptist community have responded to the crises of 2020 with creativity, compassion, solidarity, and generosity. But the responses have not been uniform. The interconnected events of the last several months have also magnified rifts and strained ties that bind the faith community together. Our job as historians, librarians, and archivists is to document this moment in history in all its diversity and complexity.
Anabaptist History Today has the potential to play a critical role in this regard. The project is open to anyone who identifies as Anabaptist, regardless of political or religious convictions or denominational affiliation. The website also provides an important tool for capturing personal stories and experiences that might not otherwise be recorded or preserved. Due to web-archiving tools like Archive-It, the response of the institutional church (including denominational agencies, conferences, and other partners) will already be well documented. These accounts are important, but we want to create a fuller picture by recording stories and reflections that are happening behind the scenes, ones that capture the daily, lived experiences of people in the Anabaptist and Mennonite community.
As a crowdsourced project, AHT relies on the interest and engagement of the public. We’ve already received some good contributions, including a description of a typical Sunday morning during the pandemic in Harrisonburg, Virginia; an eighty year old Mennonite’s reflection on Black Lives Matter; and a podcast documenting experiences in the Portland Mennonite Church community. At the same time, we realize that these are difficult times. Amid ongoing stresses and challenges and the pressing needs in our communities, documenting our lives for posterity may not be a priority for many people.
I encourage people to view AHT as an opportunity to take an active role in a project that will enrich understanding of the Anabaptist community during a defining moment in history. AHT provides a chance to take a step back and reflect on how your life has changed over the course of this year. You do not have to be a trained theologian to get involved. We are not looking for polished treatises. What we want are individual snapshots that reflect your personal experiences in your local congregation or community. Scroll back through your camera roll and find that photo you took at your church’s physically distanced worship service. Type out that poem or reflection you wrote in your journal in April. Take a screenshot of the Facebook post you wrote after attending a Black Lives Matter protest in June. Record a short interview with your pastor about their experiences. Then take five minutes and submit your story on the Anabaptist History Today website.2
People around the world are coping with new realities in 2020 and hundreds of cultural institutions are working to document the human stories that are emerging. How have you acted on your faith during this time of crisis? How has your local community responded? What has been unique about your experiences? Anabaptists of the future will want to know.
For more information about Anabaptist History Today and how you can get involved, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- See, for example, Farhad Manjoo, “I’m Doomsday Prepping for the End of Democracy,” The New York Times, 3 September 2020, accessed 16 September 2020. For an interesting, historically grounded counterpoint, see Helmut Walser Smith, “No, America is not succumbing to fascism,” The Washington Post, 1 September 2020, accessed 16 September 2020. ↩
- See the frequently asked questions page for more ideas and submission prompts.↩