(Web) Archiving the Pandemic

As dedicated blog-readers will know, this library is above-and-beyond awesome in a lot of ways. Lest you should think you’ve uncovered all of the library’s secrets, I have another way in which the library is awesome to share with you. And that is: we archive the internet!

Since we’re having a big, collective experience of history-in-the-making right now, I probably don’t need to convince you that future historians and students will want to look back on this moment and see an enormous cache of archived stuff. Archives and libraries throughout the country (and world, undoubtedly) are collecting all manner of pandemic ephemera right now: hand sewn masks, huge empty bottles of sanitizer, signs in support of essential workers, as well as signs from recent and ongoing protests for Black lives. 

All of those materials will eventually be sorted and made available to future researchers, but you can imagine how difficult it would be to understand the nuances of the pandemic - and allllllll of the discussion surrounding it - from something like a lone hand sewn mask. How is the mask supposed to tell you about the local network of mask seamstresses that delivered it to its wearer? Or how it felt to become the de facto uniform of people emerging from their houses everywhere? The object alone is a pretty quiet part of the historical record. It needs words to fill out, gain substance. And you know where our words are these days?

Yep, this is where archiving the internet (or “web archiving”) comes in.

We’ve collected websites through Community Webs, an initiative of the Internet Archive and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, for about three years. (Look close at the photo in the Community Webs link and you’ll see the library’s own Melissa Fisher-Isaacs.) The websites are all “local,” meaning they have some relevance to Lawrence or Douglas County, and they feature some good Easter eggs from the recent history of Lawrence. But mostly, the collection’s focus pre-pandemic skewed towards saving records that used to be paper, like city commission meeting notes, neighborhood association newsletters, and obituaries. 

Now that we’re in pandemic times, it’s a race to capture all of the messages from local businesses’ reopenings or closures, local organizations’ offers of aid, and the county health department’s updates. Not to mention our recent primary election, from which we captured candidate forums and campaign websites, and the summer’s protests centered at the Lawrence Police Department and South Park. So much of this discourse happens on social media, and social media platforms evolve so quickly, that we’re playing a constant game of catch-up to save some of these rich, historical discussions before they disappear from public view. 

And save them we should: the internet, for all of its problems, presents archivists with an incredible opportunity to capture and render persistent the words of everyday people in a way that was never before possible. Adding posts, tweets, shares, and status updates - plus regular old websites - to the historical record will, if everything goes according to plan, afford future historians an intimate, detailed look at our own era. It will prevent future humans from forgetting, or propagandizing, what went on before them. And we all know what happens when you forget your own history… 

You can check out some of the archived websites here, or through the Digital Douglas County History portal (click on Web Archives in the column at left). Many of our “seeds” - or the sites we are actively archiving - are private as we work out the kinks in their replay, but you can still see plenty of the seeds we’ve successfully captured to date. You can email hhenderson@lplks.org with any errors you come across.

If you just want to learn more about web archiving, here’s a short reading list from the Archive-It blog. You could also investigate the entwined issues of collective memory and humans’ attempts to preserve it through books like The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, The Northern Cheyenne Exodus in History and Memory, or another of the smattering of books below.

The Meaning of the Library

The Northern Cheyenne Exodus in History and Memory

Learning From the Germans


A Misplaced Massacre

A Rift in the Earth

The Ties That Bind

-Hazlett Henderson is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.