Archiving to Connect During a Crisis: How We Can Unite to Document COVID-19

By Laura Starr, Certified Archivist, HAI Engagement Strategist

I am an archivist and historian. I am a spouse, friend, neighbor, and coworker. I am an American and a global citizen. And right now, I am one of the millions practicing social distancing, in self-imposed quarantine, or in medical isolation due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) worldwide pandemic. Anyone in tune with current events knows about the hygienic and social measures recommended to keep from spreading and contracting the disease.

This post is not about listing or describing those health measures. Rather, it is a call to action to anyone who appreciates that today’s events are tomorrow’s history. We have an opportunity to contribute to—and unite through—the effort to archive this unprecedented global pandemic for future generations.

The Professional Purpose of Archivists and Historians

Those of us who work in the field of history and archives are always on a quest to document, preserve, share, and interpret information. We seek to safeguard, teach, and learn. We handle old dusty papers, unique artifact collections, and modern digital content. The fruits of our labors take different forms depending on where we work and in what capacity.

As the Society of American Archivists states, archives are “used for many purposes, including providing legal and administrative evidence, protecting the rights of individuals and organizations, and forming part of the cultural heritage of society.”[i] Archivists ensure that information is captured, preserved, and described for legal purposes, but also for the education, reflection, and engagement of future generations.

The American Historical Association specifies that “historians strive constantly to improve our collective and diverse understanding of the past through a complex process of critical dialogue—with each other, with the wider public, and with the historical record—in which we explore former lives and diverse worlds in search of answers to the most compelling questions of our own time and place.”[ii] For historians, archival sources lay the groundwork for cross-generational discussion, debate, and engagement.

This Centers for Disease Control map shows the global spread of COVID-19 as of March 23, 2020. The pandemic has created a shared experience that simultaneously unites and isolates people worldwide.

For today’s archivists and historians, the documentation, preservation, and contextualization of digital information are vital responsibilities. We exist to protect and provide access to information resources to a global community across time. In a digital society, that information is being created and shared on corporate networks, personal devices, on social media, via live streaming services, and through countless web-based platforms. Digital content changes rapidly and can disappear without notice. During a major event or crisis, our role to capture and preserve digital information becomes even more critical.

Archiving and Interpreting Health, Medicine, and COVID-19 in a Digital World

Since its founding in 1836, the National Library of Medicine (originally known as the Library of the Office of the Surgeon General of the Army) has collected, preserved, and made available to the public information about health, medicine, and the biomedical sciences. For almost 25 years, my HAI colleagues have collaborated with NLM archivists and historians to safeguard and provide access to stories and original sources of scientific discovery through the Profiles in Science digital project. We have conducted oral history projects with 27 National Institutes of Health (NIH) departments. Beginning in 2009, NLM expanded its collecting and archiving efforts to include web content which is essential to documenting health and medicine in the 21st century. You can view the collections of web content created by NLM here , including NLM’s Global Health Events web archive, which has been expanded to include content documenting the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.

NLM is one of more than 750 organizations that capture, share, and contextualize web-based archives by using Archive-It, a web archiving service for collecting and accessing cultural heritage online. To date, there are more than 7,000 unique collections available through the Archive-It platform.

In partnership with the global web archives International Internet Preservation Consortium (IIPC), Archive-It has created a collection to preserve web content related to the ongoing Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. This initiative began capturing information in February 2020. Websites from anywhere in the world and in any language are in scope. Jefferson Bailey, Archive-It’s Director of Web and Data Services, says that “this unprecedented moment reminds us of the vital role of the web as a historical record and communication platform, even as it remains an ephemeral and quickly changing one.” Mr. Bailey feels that “the scale and impact of COVID-19 on all nations of the world has also presented those responsible for archiving web-published materials an opportunity for international collaboration and partnerships to record this global event.”

New terms like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” have become culturally pervasive. These terms, and the resulting memes and graphics, should be captured and preserved. (Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris via Wikimedia under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

Archiving as a Way to Connect

And so, archivists and historians find ourselves living in a pandemic situation at a scale unprecedented in modern memory. We are equipped and ready to apply our skills, values, and ethics to document and share the records created in response to this unique situation.

But it’s not just about fulfilling a professional mission to archive and share the information and stories unfolding around COVID-19. This work also feels very personal as we adjust our lives to “flatten the curve” of the virus’ impact. As we take a step back from our public and social lives, we may experience a sense of loneliness and loss (even while FaceTime and Zoom usage skyrockets). Contributing to web archives and virtual history projects about the virus may provide a sense of connection and engagement that we crave.

Many in academia see opportunities for students and citizens to contribute to the historical record of events unfolding around them. Herbert “Tico” Braun, a College Fellow and professor in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History, is urging students and others to keep personal records of these tumultuous times. In an article posted to UVAToday, Dr. Braun encourages students and others to “think of your children, your grandchildren, your friends down the road, who will ask you what was it like during that pandemic.” As time passes, we may not remember the details or emotions of today’s events. Dr. Braun encourages people to pay attention to social media and “gather these voices, these experiences, all this creativity. They are all a record of our times. These voices are urgent.”

The COVID-19 Omeka site captures daily experiences and realities during the pandemic, such as emptied grocery store shelves. (ASU Omeka site)

Other educators are setting up specific ways to capture the impact of COVID-19. In a phone conversation, Dr. Mark Tebeau, Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University (ASU), told me that ASU was well-equipped for full-time remote learning. However, he and his colleagues recognized that the situation is emotionally difficult for students. ASU is now leading an international consortium of scholars and archivists who are collaborating both as curators and as catalysts within their national and regional communities. They launched a crowd-sourced Omeka site called A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID19. The site encourages users to search the collection and share their own stories and experiences. All contributed stories are reviewed and vetted to protect individual privacy before going live. According to the site description, contributors will “help your communities to understand the extraordinary, as well as the ordinary of this moment. In the future, historians will be able to use this record of daily life to better understand the changing nature of our lives.”

And as an advocate for the historical profession, Dr. Tebeau is especially excited by the “lightbulb” moments experienced by many students who contribute to the project. Students are realizing that they can shape the future of history by capturing the here and now. This brings a new appreciation for the field of public history, and will hopefully inspire a new generation of archivists and historians. By combining their digital skills with enthusiasm for history, this next generation will undoubtedly create even more opportunities for engagement as eyewitnesses to history.

Ways to Get Involved in Archiving COVID-19

The opportunities to contribute to and connect through COVID-19 web archives projects are ever-evolving. Below are selected projects and resources for engagement.

For institutions:

 

For individuals:

 

[i] “SAA Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics,” About SAA, Society of American Archivists, accessed March 23, 2020, https://www2.archivists.org/statements/saa-core-values-statement-and-code-of-ethics.

[ii] “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct (updated 2019),” Statements, Standards, and Guidelines of the Discipline, American Historical Association, accessed March 23, 2020, https://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/statements-standards-and-guidelines-of-the-discipline/statement-on-standards-of-professional-conduct.

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