Documenting the COVID-19 Pandemic
Archiving the Present for Future Research
As we go through the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, we are inundated by articles, images, video, statistics, and graphs through our handhelds and desktops coming from a variety of channels–including social media, news outlets, journals, and preprints. The sources of information expand from governmental agencies to research institutions, from policy makers to advocacy groups. And now archivists and others are asking how we can archive these rich and diverse sources of information–not only for future generations but also for those who will be studying various scientific, sociological, political, and cultural aspects of the pandemic in the near future. Given the diverse, variable, and fluid nature of information, archival roles are distributed across both individual and institutional levels. Academic libraries are no longer perceived as the primary drivers and leaders in digital preservation even as archives operate under their mandates for specific constituents.
Even a preliminary search on different social media outlets reveals several personal archiving efforts undertaken by scholars, encompassing various aspects of the outbreak such as official announcements, posters and signs, and event cancellations. At an institutional level, it is encouraging to see initiatives such as the collaboration between Archive-It and the International Internet Preservation Consortium’s (IIPC) Content Development Group on collecting and preserving web content related to the outbreak. High priority subtopics include origins of the pandemic, data about the spread of infection, regional or local containment efforts, and various scientific, social, economic, and political aspects. For the purposes of this initial work, they privilege published information resources over social media feeds or hashtags. The project involves both subject-expert curation by IIPC members as well as the inclusion of websites nominated by the public. There is a form for participation to nominate topical websites. The general public can also contribute by uploading non-web digital resources directly to specific Internet Archive collections such as Community Video or Community Texts.
The National Library of Medicine’s Global Health Events Web Archive, which includes a selective collection of websites on global health events, recently added Coronavirus alongside its resources on the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks. The archive includes websites and the social media posts of governmental and non-governmental organizations, journalists, healthcare workers, and scientists in the United States and around the world, with an aim to collect and preserve a diversity of perspectives. Similarly, the UK Archive’s Pandemic Outbreaks, which was developed in response to the 2005 Avian Flu outbreak, contains public advisory sites produced by the government alongside news and commentary.
At a more granular level, Public-Source, a UK company, has started collecting stories for their COVID-19 Archive in collaboration with a photography magazine Then There Was Us to feature work by photographers and writers from across the globe who are recording life during the outbreak of coronavirus. As stories unfold and social-distancing becomes the norm, Laura Starr from History Associates suggests that contributing to web archives and virtual history projects about the virus may provide a sense of connection and engagement. For instance, Herbert “Tico” Brown, a professor at the University of Virginia, has asked his current and former students to keep a record of their daily lives during this unprecedented time so that future generations will get a glimpse of daily lives during a 21st century pandemic.
We are witnessing the emergence of a number of community-driven distributed and specialized archives. For instance, the Radiological Society of North America is collecting images and data from coronavirus cases around the world and providing image hosting, annotation and analysis tools. They aim to support the development of new artificial intelligence algorithms for identifying the disease and aiding physicians in therapy planning. Historians from 14 academic institutions have launched a Journal of the Plague Year to document impressions of how COVID-19 has affected lives through multimedia materials.They aim to collect “anything that speaks to paradoxes of the moment” to inform future historians about how daily lives changed. Also, these crowdsourcing efforts are seen as an engaged learning opportunity for students, especially considering equity and diversity issues in building an inclusive archive. Colorado State University Libraries’ Archives & Special Collections has initiated a campus-wide project to encourage students, staff, and faculty to document their personal experiences during the coronavirus outbreak and contribute them to the University Archives. The community is invited to record their experiences about the transition to remote instruction, working from home, efforts to stay connected, and the impact of closing residence halls and other campus services through journaling, voice memos, social media posts, phones, and multimedia digital storytelling. The Grems-Doolittle Library and Archives at the Schenectady County Historical Society is asking the county residents to share their experiences on how the pandemic is affecting them to collect and preserve the stories.
In a recent opinion piece in the Journal of Information Science and Technology, a group of scientists cautions that global health crises are also information crises and that currently there is no coordinated effort to ensure the timely, comprehensive, and accurate archiving of related materials. Archiving information in times like this is not only important to capture a significant state in our history but also learn lessons for prevention and management of future outbreaks. As highlighted in the Architecting Sustainable Futures report, community-based archives are instrumental in capturing stories, situating them in local cultures and circumstances. However, many of them rely on one-time funds and lack sustainable operational models. Bergis Jules eloquently articulates some of these challenges in his recent blog and stresses the need for community-based archives to come together to support each other through mutual aid, collectives, and other resource sharing models.
While archives serve a crucial role in preserving and providing access to the cultural heritage, the Society of American Archivist (SAA) recommends closing public-facing facilities until workers are significantly less likely to be exposed to the coronavirus. Even if their buildings are closed, we need the expertise of archivists more than ever to ensure that the testimonies collected through different communities can be described, organized, discovered, and utilized. To this end, the SAA Council has created a COVID-19 resources page to help the archives community navigate this global health crisis.
Historically, research libraries focused on ensuring the longevity of published scholarship whereas archives specialized in identifying, appraising, preserving, and making available materials of long-term value (essential evidence). During the last two decades, this distinction has broken down as the functional boundaries between the two have blurred, especially with the emergence of web archiving and research data management programs. Digital preservation beyond the initial point of gathering content continues to be an expensive and complicated process, especially at an institutional level. Given the vast amount of information being captured about COVID-19, preservation is going to be more than ever about risk assessment and deciding what to save. As different cultural heritage institutions start collecting testimonies and curating related content, it would be valuable to take into consideration how these disparate efforts could be cumulatively useful and leveraged for scholars and the general public alike who will be exploring various aspects of this historic moment in the future.