Oya Rieger

Oya Rieger

Last updated on 20 August 2021

Oya Y. Rieger is Senior Strategist for Ithaka S+R in the USA

Since it began almost 20 months ago, the pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. Researchers from all around the world have been mobilized to help understand and combat COVID-19 and communicate public health messages about it to a range of audiences. Critical information about COVID-19 has been flowing through various channels, including social media, news outlets, journals, and preprint servers. Early on, many cultural heritage organizations engaged in initiatives to participate in the curation and archiving of a diverse range of information. Given the ephemeral nature of digital information, preservation is not only a matter of considering the access requirements of tomorrow’s users but also taking into consideration the needs of individuals who are currently studying various scientific, sociological, political, and cultural aspects of the pandemic. These archiving efforts will not only help to capture a significant moment in our history but may also contribute to the prevention or management of future outbreaks.

With a shout-out to the many stewarding organizations that are engaged in preservation efforts, I’d like to provide a few insights gained through the documentation initiatives that aim to record the pandemic:

  • Social media has been used heavily in disseminating information and misinformation. It continues to be complicated to archive, especially to enable future computational analysis. Increasing reliance on social media further compounds concerns over information accuracy, privacy, confidentiality, and ethics. While there have been several social media and web archiving initiatives, the increasing pressure to capture the events as they unfold has further revealed the difficulties associated with at-scale curation and archiving.

  • Some archival collection efforts are driven by the need to capture the institutional memory by collecting internal communication documents, press releases, and other materials to demonstrate an organization’s response to the situation and cultural history.

  • As an excellent example of collaboration, Archive-It and the International Internet Preservation Consortium’s (IIPC) Content Development Group have been working together on collecting and preserving web content related to the outbreak. Identification of websites and initial web crawling began in February 2020. In addition to subject-expert curation by IIPC members, the archive also includes websites nominated by the public.

  • Several national archives are harvesting websites and the social media posts of governmental and non-governmental organizations, journalists, healthcare workers, and scientists in the country of origin and around the world to preserve a diversity of perspectives. Some, such as the UK Archive’s Pandemic Outbreaks, also contain public advisory sites produced by the government alongside news and commentary.

  • Community-based archives are instrumental in capturing stories and situating them in local cultures and circumstances. Although the pandemic presents an opportunity to preserve and document a diverse range of experiences, it also reveals inequities about the capacity of insufficiently resourced archives (such as Indigenous communities and underfunded cultural heritage institutions all around the world) in capturing their own histories.

  • Collecting efforts by local historical societies and archives will help provide a glimpse of daily life during a 21st century pandemic to future audiences. Such initiatives also foster a sense of community and connect people around a common experience through shared stories, images, and videos.

But digital preservation continues to be an expensive and complicated process, especially at an institutional level. In almost every country, cultural heritage organizations with a strong sense of mission are doing their best with limited resources and expertise, often without a sustainable operational model. The pandemic has further strained cultural heritage organizations as they face a public health crisis and financial uncertainty while trying to continue to fulfill their curatorial missions. Although we have witnessed a global frenzy of collecting to illustrate documentation efforts, the initiatives also underscore the challenges of documenting history as it unfolds in a ubiquitous, pervasive and dynamic digital information landscape where content is constantly updated or modified. UNESCO’s recent statement on COVID and documentary heritage highlights the importance of national and international cooperation and increased investment in preservation programs, especially to make memory institutions more readily accessible to researchers, policymakers and the community at large.


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