The implications and consequences of the COVID-19  pandemic can vary greatly depending on demographic, political, social, cultural and economic factors.  Therefore the regional documentation initiatives–now being undertaken by cultural heritage institutions throughout the world–are essential to capturing local circumstances and experiences. This work is vital to help future generations understand the extent of the pandemic and its vast impact. 

To this end, and in collaboration with several international preservation advocacy organizations, UNESCO recently made a public statement through its Memory of the World Programme calling on member states to turn the threat of COVID-19 into an opportunity for greater support for documentary heritage. It is also a call for memory institutions to become even more readily accessible to researchers, scientists, policymakers, media professionals, and the community at large. UNESCO is hosting a series of virtual regional discussions to raise awareness about the role memory institutions can play in documenting the pandemic. Through these forums, UNESCO is also hoping to determine how these archiving programs can best be supported. 

On April 29, 2020, I attended one such forum–the Africa Regional Consultation on Memory Institutions Response to COVID-19–where 60 individuals from various African countries gathered to share their experiences and insights on documenting and archiving the pandemic.  With simultaneous translation in different languages, the speakers included leaders from UNESCO, Memory of the World Regional Committee for Africa, National Archives of Cameroon, Southern African Research and Documentation Centre, and Bibliotheca Alexandrina.  

During the forum, I provided an overview of ongoing efforts to document the scientific, sociological, political, and cultural aspects of the pandemic through a wide range of institutional and personal archiving initiatives. I also  highlighted the challenges these efforts face given the variable and fluid nature of information and the distributed nature of institutional and individual archiving. My key points and recommendations included:

  • We cannot preserve everything. Beyond the initial point of gathering content, digital preservation continues to be an expensive and complicated process, especially at an institutional level. Given the vast amount of information being captured about COVID-19 more than ever preservation is going to be about risk assessment and deciding what to save. The challenge of ongoing preservation is compounded because we have not yet fully solved the problem of maintaining print and AV collections.
  • Institutional efforts alone are not sufficient. It is more important than ever to invest in capacity-building and collaborative preservation infrastructure development initiatives to enable effective and efficient preservation programs. 
  • Cultural heritage organizations need to consider the long-term financial and maintenance requirements of digital information and curate strategically. Digital information has consequences for environmental sustainability due to the large support infrastructure needed for cloud and networked storage and the vast amount of energy required by data centers. 
  • Diversity and inclusivity must be central to curation efforts. This is an important principle to ensure that the knowledge preserved for future generations is balanced in representing different voices and perspectives and is grounded in local cultures and circumstances.
  • Archived content must be discoverable. Preservation for the sake of storing information safely on stable storage platforms is not the end-game. The important thing is making sure that the archived content is discoverable and usable by a wide range of potential users at the point of need.  

The speakers and event participants stressed the importance of advocating for freedom of expression and safety for journalists and reinforcing the importance of independent media in covering such crises. Questions and comments during the forum underscored the critical role of free and independent media, the right to access information, and the growing need for access to information and communication technologies. Also discussed at the event was the role of cultural heritage institutions in the face of the alarming growth of fake news and disinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic. UNESCO is maintaining a COVID-19 resource center to promote freedom of expression and foster unhindered access to objective and accurate information resources to tackle misinformation.  

The event highlighted the holistic aspects of documentation and archiving. The efforts need to factor in a range of sociocultural impetus such as preserving artistic and creative expressions that act as a source of social connectivity, hope, and resilience for communities worldwide. The participants stressed both the need to document indigenous knowledge communities and the resource and capacity challenges at the local level. To be equitable and diverse, regional archives need to support multiple languages and move towards open access faster and more purposefully.  

Archiving information in times like this is not only important to capture a significant stage in our history but also to learn lessons for  the prevention and management of future outbreaks. The forum was a testimony to the critical role memory organizations are playing in capturing the events as they unfold and the importance of curation efforts in  understanding, contextualizing, and overcoming such crises in the future. It further demonstrated the universality of the challenges faced by the archival community in keeping up with the sheer volume of information and making curation decisions including steps for ensuring long-term access. Woven through the discussion was the scarcity of funding and resources in addition to the need to further understand the efficacy and costs of long-term preservation. Most memory institutions rely on public support and the “shelter-in-place” orders have inevitably had devastating effects on their revenue streams. There was a call for increasing public and private sector investment in the preservation and accessibility of documentary heritage as a matter of disaster risk reduction and management.