AUSTIN, Texas — The Austin History Center is the official archive for the city’s records, but it also preserves cultural artifacts showing how the city has evolved over time.
At the start of the pandemic last year, archivists at the center realized they had an opportunity to preserve a record of how COVID-19 has impacted the city in real time.
“Getting people engaged with the materials and really teaching people about how to use archives... All of that is really fun for me," said Madeline Moya. "Sharing all the resources, all those things that we take all that time to describe and make accessible, being able to have people actually access them is, you know, what is exciting to us. And to help people find the answers to their questions; people come in here with all kinds of different things that they're looking for. And it's really exciting for all of us whenever we're able to put our hands on the document that they need to see or the photograph that they need that kind of thing."
As the media archivist at the Austin History Center, Moya maintains and preserves historic photos, approximately 1.5 million, of the city and its people. The incredible collection documents how the city has changed over more than 100 years. Moya says she loves being able to preserve the visual history of Austin.
"There are some pretty, just incredible photographs," said Moya. "You could only go back 10 years and there's a huge change, but you know, if we go back to the late 19th century, it's the West, it's the pioneer West, you know, so seeing that visual history of Austin develop is pretty powerful.”
It’s an ongoing effort. She’s especially passionate about collecting material that documents the city’s evolving culture.
"People get in touch with us and say, 'I have this set of papers, I have this photo album…Would you have any interest in it?' And, usually, our answer is yes, because you know there's a pretty broad definition of what documents Austin's history," said Moya. "The history is the history of the families here, the businesses here, the way that things have been developed in our city. So, if it's made in or about or by someone in Austin, it usually fits the description of what we collect here at the Austin History Center.
At the start of the pandemic, Moya says she and her fellow archivists felt a responsibility to start a project preserving documentation of how COVID-19 impacted the city.
“We realized we were living through a really historic major moment, and that someone should be collecting all the stuff that's being produced during the pandemic, all the different ways that Austin, as a city, you know, families, businesses, responded to the pandemic," said Moya.
They began collecting city records, like public service announcements and health protocol changes, but the project quickly evolved.
“This is a small introduction to our COVID-19 files project," said Moya. "This is a case where we are just highlighting some of the street art that went up on Sixth Street. A lot of murals were painted, you know, over boarded up businesses and other buildings downtown…up here we have just a selection of photographs. This one is, you know, a deserted I-35 which I don't think we'll ever see again, hopefully, in our lifetimes.”
They also put out a call to the public for donations, and so far, have received more than 4,500 items, everything from mask selfies to video diaries.
"A lot of photographs from families, videos, a lot of art, a lot of journals, a lot of diaries, business records from, you know, store announcements of when places were closing, just a lot of cultural objects," said Moya.
The collection is still accepting donations from the public, and is available online for anyone to view.
Moya hopes that the project helps people realize that the History Center’s archives are not just for scholarly research, but preserving community history.
“That really is kind of the crux of this whole place, is that... we are a resource for the community... anyone can walk in the door and have access to our collections. There are no barriers here, you just need to come in. If you're curious about anything that's happened in Austin, that's what we're here for," said Moya.