Associate Professor Erin McCarthy Captures Oral Histories of COVID-19

erin mccarthy
McCarthy and Columbia’s archivists created a project entitled Capturing Quarantine, where students interview each other remotely to document their experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Associate Professor Erin McCarthy listens to stories and then makes sure they’re shared with others. It all started with a project on birthing practices, where McCarthy found a family of four generations, three generations of whom had given birth, and compared their experiences. The revelations and differences in each woman’s experience had her hooked. She was an oral history convert, and now dedicates her professional life to listening to people’s stories and making sure they’re shared with others.

According to McCarthy, oral history is a knowledge producer. "It's the creation of knowledge. It's the creation of a primary source while based on memory, certainly is not exact, but it gives us insight into how people felt, how these experiences impacted them, and there's just not a lot of historical sources that give us that, the how, the why, the personal response, the impact it's made on their life. That is left to the historian's imagination most of the time, and oral history does give that.”

McCarthy was hired at Columbia College Chicago as an adjunct professor and was invited to help create the Columbia College Oral History Project (CCOHP). The Columbia College Oral History Project, started by now-retired Distinguished Professor Louis Silverstein, strove to preserve a record of College history from the 1960s through the words of the people who shaped the modern Columbia. Interviews were conducted from 1998 to 2004 with the assistance of Erin McCarthy and Chris Thale, both professional historians. McCarthy recalls she conducted about 84 interviews during that time for the project to accurately capture those who shaped Columbia’s values as they are today. She hopes to one day interview President Kim to continue the collection.

As the CCOHP was underway, McCarthy realized there were no oral history classes being offered at Columbia, so with Silverstein’s encouragement, she created a class for students to learn about and conduct oral histories, a topic so relevant to many students across the campus. McCarthy added, “so many of Columbia's majors, so many of us are about telling stories. Almost every major is about some version of storytelling, [whether it’s] written, audio, video, [or] cinema arts.”

Each oral history class focuses on a historical topic, to learn more about who they’ll be interviewing. Then, students learn about the discipline and how to record oral histories. This is all accomplished during the course of a semester. McCarthy noted that Columbia’s Oral History: The Art of the Interview course was the first to sign on with the Library of Congress' Veteran's History Project, and Columbia students have done over 200 interviews for that project. These interviews are part of the Library of Congress’ permanent collection. (see:

Oral History: The Art of the Interview is now part of the honors program at Columbia, and in the Spring of 2020 the oral histories classes partnered with the Council on Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago. However, in the middle of the 2019-2020 Spring Semester the COVID-19 pandemic forced all classes to move online, with students learning remotely. This made the historically face-to-face interviews the oral history classes were to conduct with the members of the Council on Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago impossible. McCarthy had to make the decision to abandon the semester’s project and was faced with having to figure out how to fulfill the learning outcomes of the course.

McCarthy and Columbia’s archivists, Heidi Marshall and Dominic Rossetti decided to create a project entitled Capturing Quarantine and have the students interview each other remotely to document their experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic. Capturing Quarantine is part of the larger archival project: Response 2020. For now, oral history courses will continue to contribute to Response 2020. “We will know more about people's experiences and COVID-19…due to increased awareness; it's important to document [this pandemic] because we know so little about the pandemic of 1918.”

In the future McCarthy hopes to go back to face-to-face interviews, but after seeing the success of Zoom and video meetings, she is leaning towards additional accommodations for remote video interviews. These video meetings also allow the option for the interviews to be filmed, which hasn’t been a focus previously.

Of the course’s impact on students, McCarthy notes, “students have the ability to incorporate interviewing into their practice and already have. This adds to their toolbox. I think the skill set that it draws upon and develops, is another reason/rationale for this course and why it's a great fit at Columbia and why it's good for our students.” McCarthy added that many students, after prepping and interviewing the subject for about twelve weeks, feel they know the person they are interviewing better than they know anyone else.

McCarthy is also working on a manuscript about Amos Alonzo Stagg, the football coach at the University of Chicago from 1892 to 1933. McCarthy wrote her dissertation about his life and his football coach career. Now she’s focusing on his early baseball origins. McCarthy plans for a book release in 2021.


Sarah Borchardt
Communications Manager