The Carnegie Library for Local History has been partially closed for years. A voter-approved ballot measure to create a library district could expand its hours. Credit: John Herrick
“The next time someone goes looking for stories on what it was like to survive a pandemic, we’ll actually have something," said Nicole Docimo, an archivist at Boulder’s Carnegie Library for Local History. Credit: John Herrick

When Covid first began to spread nearly three years ago, local researchers and reporters asked Nicole Docimo, an archivist at Boulder’s Carnegie Library for Local History, for records on the 1918 flu pandemic. Docimo was able to turn up only a handful of newspapers and diary entries written around that time from the library’s archive.

The influenza outbreak killed more than half a million people across the country. But the toll it took on Boulder remains a hole in local history. It was then that Docimo and her colleagues began considering how to document the 2020 pandemic so future generations might better understand how Boulderites experienced the public health crisis.  

The result is the Covid Community Stories questionnaire — the first of its kind at the library, according to Docimo — which seeks to collect a breadth of personal accounts across Boulder County. It asks participants to describe how and when they first heard about Covid, the habits they developed during the pandemic, and what their experiences with children or as a student, for example, were like. 

Another Covid project — in oral history format — serves as a more detailed version of the questionnaire, diving into people’s stories with recorded audio interviews.

Much of Carnegie Library’s collection consists of donated materials – like photos people have found when remodeling their homes, or archives of a shuttered local organization. These two Covid projects capture communal history in real time, as residents continue to document turmoil, sickness, death and more. 

In one recording from June 2020, Lea Yancey was eight months pregnant when a Carnegie Library volunteer interviewed her. “Pregnancy has an element of uncertainty and a huge kind of life transition,” Yancey told the volunteer. “I think the pandemic adds this extra layer of uncertainty.”

Audrey Nicole Christensen, who was interviewed in May 2020, owns a CrossFit gym with her husband. They shut down their business that March.  

“We bought a building for our business in January. Our business, as it stands right now, probably can’t support or survive moving into it,” Christensen said at the time. 

She explained that she and her husband used to have weekends but they lost that luxury. “We have reinvented our business every three weeks for the past six weeks. And then we’re going to do it again when we open, and then we’re going to do it again when the restrictions start to lift.” 

Docimo has received about 30 responses to the questionnaire that launched in December. She hopes for closer to 100 by the time it closes at the end of February. Anyone can fill out the questionnaire, or be interviewed for the Covid oral history project. All responses will be available on Carnegie Library’s website – like all of its oral histories.

“The next time someone goes looking for stories on what it was like to survive a pandemic, we’ll actually have something,” Docimo said.  

The library’s first oral histories were recorded in 1976 on cassette tapes, and since then it has collected more than 3,000 interviews. 

“Oral history tells you the feeling, the impact and emotion in a way that can change peoples’ perceptions about a topic,” said Cyns Nelson, who became Carnegie Library’s oral history project coordinator in 2014.

“There’s something about listening to someone talk about their own experiences in their own voice,” Docimo said, “that has an emotional impact on humans that you can’t quite replace.”

Last year, Nelson worked with roughly 15 volunteers, whom she trained to interview subjects, transcribe and edit oral history projects. Most recently, Nelson and volunteers started a project around the Marshall Fire’s first anniversary to document fire survivors’ oral histories. 

The library’s largest oral history collection contains interviews on Rocky Flats, the nuclear weapons plant that was located just south of Boulder County that operated from 1952 to 1989. The collection boasts around 180 interviews collected over more than 15 years.

The Covid oral history project, meanwhile, continues in fits and starts. 

It began in May 2020, when one volunteer interviewed four people over Zoom. Since then, Nelson has collected “passive info,” she said, like clips from local interviews about the pandemic. 

“Often, what ends a project is the lack of energy and resources to pour into it,” Nelson said. Her volunteers do much of the legwork for oral history projects. That can make planning and developing the projects complicated. But relying on volunteers is also the reason that the library’s oral histories are so reflective of life in Boulder, Nelson said.

“It’s a community project,” she said. “It’s ebbing and flowing with the energy of the community and what they can put into it.” 

Since the start of Covid, Carnegie has operated by appointment only and with limited hours due to a shortage in staff.  With more library district funding, Docimo said she hopes the library will reopen to walk-in visitors who want to explore its vast archives.

“We’re not just for serious, historical researchers,” Docimo said. “This is an archive for the community.”

Jessica Mordacq is a contributor to Boulder Reporting Lab focused on local food and drink coverage. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, she graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and has previously written for various trade and lifestyle magazines. Email:

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