Archiving COVID-19: A Guide

Archiving COVID-19: A Guide

A historian's guide to creating a lasting record of COVID-19.


Dr. Ananya Chakravarti

March 21, 2020


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    Archiving the Present A Guide to Creating a Record of

    COVID-19 Dr. Ananya Chakravarti Associate Professor of History Georgetown University Twitter: @achakrava
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    COVID-19: A World Historical Event • Historians study change over

    time. Thus, our discipline is ill-equipped to make judgments about the present because we cannot know how things will change. • Historians are thus generally loathe to judge the significance of an event as it unfolds, since what seems important now may have little impact in the long run, while trivial events can have vast effects over time. • Nonetheless, it is clear that we are witnessing an event of world historical magnitude given its scale, both geographically and in terms of wide-ranging social impact. • Histories of disease have value not just for historians, but for epidemiologists and other medical researchers, public health professionals and policy-makers. • In that spirit, let us use what we have learned about history to document as best we can COVID- 19 for the benefit of future historians of this event.
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    Ten pages of obituaries in L’eco di Bergamo. David Carretta,

    Tweet Post, March 14, 2020 4:36 am Visualizing the Scale of COVID-19 World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 60, 19 March 2020.
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    Primary Sources and Archives • Primary sources are historical documents

    or artefacts that have survived from the past and that provide first-hand evidence of past events. They are coeval with the event under question. • Examples: letters, diaries and other personal papers, government and other institutional documents, newspapers, maps, audio-visual recordings including photographs, sound recordings and video, digital artefacts, material artefacts (including architecture and art objects) • An archive is a repository of such historical documents. Pages from Times of India, 1918
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    Primary Source: The Spanish Flu Through Gandhi’s Eyes “I could

    read only today your card telling me that you, Kiki and others had fallen ill. I was glad to learn, however, that by the grace of God you are all progressing. The body of the person who has chosen to follow the dharma of service must become as strong as steel as a result of his holy work. Our ancestors could build such tough bodies in the past. But today we are reduced to a state of miserable weakness and are easily infected by noxious germs moving about in the air. There is one and only one really effective way by which we can save ourselves from them even in our present broken state of health. That way is the way of self-restraint or of imposing a limit on our acts. The doctors say, and they are right, that in influenza our body is safest from any risk to life if we attend to two things. Even after we feel that we have recovered, we must continue to take complete rest in bed and have only an easily digestible liquid food. So early as on the third day after the fever has subsided many persons resume their work and their usual diet. The result is a relapse and quite often a fatal relapse. I request you all, therefore, to keep to your beds for some days still. And I wish you kept me informed about the health of you all. I am myself confined to bed still. It appears I shall have to keep to it for many days more, but it can be said that I am getting better. The doctors have forbidden me even to dictate letters, but how could I have the heart to desist from writing to you?” Letter of M. K. Gandhi to Gangabehn, quoted in his diary on 10th November 1918, by his personal secretary. Mahadev Haribhai Desai, Day-to-day with Gandhi: Secretary’s Diary, Vol. 1 (Sarva Seva Sandh Prakashan, 1968): 259. Gandhi, standing on a weighing scale at Birla House, Bombay, June 1945
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    Silences in the Archives • No archive is ever complete.

    • Archives reflect the records of those with the social, political and economic resources to produce and preserve documents and conversely, to suppress those inconvenient to them. Thus, historical archives often under-represent those who were socially vulnerable and marginalized. • Historians know this and have developed techniques to address it. • Any archive of COVID-19 will reflect the hierarchies of our societies and will ironically under- represent those most vulnerable to its ravages– migrant and precarious laborers, including workers in the gig economy; non-literate peoples; people without reliable access to the internet; the infirm and elderly; those incarcerated in prisons or immigration detention centers; the homeless etc. • Still, the more we preserve, from as wide a set of points-of-view as possible, the more information historians of the future will have to make sense of our time.
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    Primary Source: Silencing the Spanish Flu in Italy “With this

    statement, the Board of Directors explicitly intended to oppose the rumors that arose and spread from the first hint around a larger and more intense manifestation of the morbid epidemic form, which had appeared to us since last spring. Since then, there has been talk of a terrible, mysterious disease, unknown in its cause and invisible in its effects ... Now it is a question for us, as it has been in other countries, of arbitrary, absurd voices, the result of incompetence and of fantastic overexcitement.” Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Italian Prime Minister, circular of October 20, 1918 to prefects, communicating the order voted upon that day by the Superior Council of Health, again affirming that the terrible epidemic was nothing but the flu. Quoted in Eugenia Tognotti, La “Spagnola” in Italia. Storia dell’influenza che fece temere la fine del mondo (1918-1919), 2nd edition (Milan: FrancoAngeli, 2015): 146. Translated by Ananya Chakravarti. Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, c. 1915-1920, Bain News Services
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    The Fragility of Archives • Archives can be destroyed deliberately

    or through neglect. • Archives are only as durable as the materials in which the sources were made. • 19th century records, for example, may be more vulnerable to decay than 17th century ones, despite being of more recent provenance, because the quality of the paper in the earlier period was more robust. • Do not assume that digital materials are automatically more secure. Much digital content has already been effectively lost in the unfathomably vast troves of digital information we have created in the last three decades. Felipe Milanez, “Incêndio no Museu Nacional do Brasil”
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    Archiving in the Digital Age • Our society’s historical footprint

    has changed. • Over half of the world’s population is online. Any archive of the present has to include born-digital materials. • The digital archives of the future are the databases of the present. • Companies routinely profit off the data we generate without compensating us and states around the world, often with the collusion of such companies (e.g. Facebook) use this data for purposes of surveillance. • When we amass digital records, even for the purposes of archiving, we must be aware that they are databases vulnerable to both sorts of exploitation. Consider anonymizing sources to protect information if necessary. • Still, democratizing access to reliable information is important both for the future and now when misinformation, often deliberately spread for political gain or private profit, can exacerbate a pandemic with catastrophic consequences.
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    Primary Source: Profiting from the Spanish Flu In the late

    1890s, the M.J. Breitenbach Company gained prominence by promising to market this dietary supplement or iron and manganese only to pharmacists, not the general public. Yet, the company was soon painting advertising signs. A report by the American Medical Association in 1917 condemning the Company’s false claims stated: It has been pointed out many times in the pages of THE JOURNAL that many nostrums are advertised first to physicians, and that after physicians have served as the unpaid agents of the manufacturers in introducing the preparations, their exploitation is them commonly continued by means of advertisements in the public press. This plan has been followed successfully in so many cases that we have now come to look on it as a regular course. It is in keeping with this rule that we find Pepto-Mangan now advertised in the public press, the physicians having served the manufacturer’s purpose. “Pepto-Mangan,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Dec. 29, 1917. Propaganda for Reform in Proprietary Medicines, Vol. 2 (Chicago: Press of American Medical Association, 1922): 387. Lynchburg News, November 5, 1918.
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    Witnessing History • In documenting what you observe, think about

    yourself as a participant in and witness to these events on two levels: • Personal: documenting your personal experience is valuable, not only for archival purposes but as a technique for coping in times of crisis. • Social: Each of us are part of different communities— families, immediate and extended; friend circles and generational peer groups; collegial groups and professional associations; local religious communities and the wider ecumene; volunteer groups; neighborhood associations; online communities). As members of these communities, we are in a position to witness and document how each community experiences and responds to COVID-19. • Furthermore, depending on the scope of the communities in which we participate, be mindful that we are witness to the unfolding of a social process at different scales: local, regional, national and global. • The techniques we might employ to document this will depend on both the scale of what we are documenting and how we interact with the communities in which we participate.
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    Technique 1: Journaling • For historians, the personal diary is

    one of our most treasured genres as a primary source that gives us a particularly intimate way of tracking change over time. • Journaling involves writing regularly without concern for external form or particular content, but rather allowing thoughts, feelings, memories and observations to play out on the page as they come to mind. • A good diarist will bring curiosity rather than judgment to the task. • Journaling, at a time like this, is also beneficial as a coping mechanism, offering us a private place to express our reactions in a way that we can revisit and reflect upon, so that we can better identify our needs and strengths. It also provides a sense of agency, as we transform ourselves from passive witnesses into active observers. Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu (1919)
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    Technique 2: Curating and Cataloguing Content • We are bombarded

    with content on COVID-19— from emails and press conferences, to memes and tweetstorms, a deluge of texts is being produced, particularly in digital form. • The best collections are focused in content, allowing historians to view change over time. Thus, prioritize a few key sources that will allow you to make sense of this at various scales. • Collections are only as useful as the catalogues by which we can make sense of their contents. Thus, catalogue your collections in detail. Consider including: • An overview of the contents of the collection you build, including dates and location where material was collected, material types, number of items, significant thematic foci and items of particular interest and/or rarity. • For each item, a detailed record of the type of material (photograph, diary, sound recording etc.), provenance information (date, location, author), any potential copyright information, and current storage conditions. • Additional notes on condition of items (e.g. damage to physical materials).
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    Thinking at Scale: Global We generally have a difficult time

    visualizing or making sense of global connectivity from our particular locations. Even as national borders are closed, the world is self-evidently knit tightly enough together to make the COVID-19 pandemic possible. Still, documenting this for any one person is impossible. Instead choose an institution or community of global reach that you participate in to follow closely, e.g. an online fanfiction community, an international volunteer group or non-profit that you support, a religious ecumene etc. Preserve content generated by that community that seems of particular significance- take screenshots or printouts of emails, download memes, preserve physical pamphlets circulated by the group etc. Paul Thompson, “To Prevent Influenza!,” Illustrated Current News (New Haven, CT, 1918). A masked Red Cross nurse is pictured in this poster.
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    Thinking at Scale: National While official national documents will likely

    be preserved by government institutions, we can still think about how we personally experience COVID- 19 as members of nations and document accordingly. If you found yourself in a foreign country during this time, how did your embassy communicate with you? If you are a member of a national professional association or union, how did that organization respond to the crisis? How was voting in the Democratic Party’s primary elections in your state affected by COVID-19? Think about your own entry-point into the national body politic in figuring out how you want to focus your documentation process. US Government poster to prevent spread of the Spanish Flu, 1918
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    Thinking at Scale: Local As newspapers have become increasingly monopolistic

    markets, many local newspapers have collapsed, even as national papers like New York Times and Washington Post have grown. As a result, not only has the production of local news dwindled, but their futures as safe archival repositories have become more doubtful. If you have a local newspaper, particularly in a vernacular language you can read, follow or subscribe to that and preserve articles related to COVID-19. Gazeta de Noticias, October 15, 1918. The headline paraphrases a famous phrase by the Brazilian physician Miguel Pereira in a speech given in October 1916 on the ills of rural Brazil: “Brazil is an immense hospital.”
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    Thinking at Scale: Generational One of the tragedies of COVID-19

    is the particular vulnerability of the elderly and the possibility that we will lose generational memory at a catastrophic pace. Even as we practice social isolation, consider collecting oral histories from older relatives, neighbors and community members by recording conversations with them, whether in person or online. Always receive their permission to do so first and explain why you are doing so. Ask them about their memories of earlier public health crises or what they heard from their parents and grandparents about such crises. Living Stories! “Spot #42- 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic,” Baylor Institute for Oral History, June 21, 2011. Louie Mayberry, 1987 interview: "When we moved to San Antonio I started to school. I hadn't gone to school but a few days, they had a—a flu epidemic in San Antonio and they turned the schools out. And we stayed out for quite a while. And they was trying to teach me how to work. They let me shine shoes at the I&GN [International-Great Northern Railroad] station in those days; it's Missouri Pacific [Railroad] now. And then school started again, and it went on for a couple of weeks, and they turned out again. We didn't get much schooling before Christmas."
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    A Note on Oral Histories • Oral histories are memories

    of events that have already occurred elicited from a first-hand witness or participant of that event. • Oral histories provide important evidence of past events, especially when documentary evidence of the event has not survived or was, deliberately or unintentionally, never produced. • If we use oral histories as primary sources not of the time in which the event was remembered but to reconstruct the events remembered, we must take into account: • The frailties of memory • The fact that what we remember is colored by the present circumstances in which we are called to remember something. This is particularly true of socially taboo topics such as sexual violence. • Thus, we must carefully record when and how the oral histories were recorded, by whom and under what conditions, since this information is vital to historians in analyzing such records. • If you transcribe instead of recording the interview, include notes to convey the emotions of the speakers.