By Ian Marino
How will historians tell the history of the COVID-19 pandemic? At first, they will do so based on historical sources, as always. But how is the vast number of vestiges of such a global and traumatic event being archived? I am starting a fellowship at the IEG DH Lab to help answer questions like that as part of my PhD research, The pandemic and the digital: digital archives and memory of COVID-19 in a global perspective, conducted at the University of Campinas, Brazil. This short report will present the main topics and questions surrounding the project.
The COVID-19 archives present a variety of rich questions from which to work. In a certain way, they open pathways to debate themes that go way beyond the pandemic experience itself, especially when one thinks about making history in the digital world. Authors such as Dipesh Chakrabarty and Joshua Keating argued that the novel coronavirus pandemic could be understood as the first genuine global event, considering the larger interface with environmental history and based on the Anthropocene debates.1 However, one might repeat the same statement but looking at the way digital tools were – and are – pivotal to the COVID-19 experience: The quickness of news diffusion; the live update of contaminated people, hospital admissions, deaths, and vaccination data; the exchange of experiences in social media; the digitization of teaching, researching, and, in many cases, working are just some examples of digital-mediated events that became part of the routine of many people around the world during the pandemic. Using personal recording gadgets and fast internet made it possible for people to realize the global feature of the pandemic in real-time. Without reflecting on the digital, there will be no understanding of life under COVID-19. For historians, the challenge of working with the vast digital archives about the pandemic is only beginning.
The first question one should ask is: what has been archived from the pandemic? The variety of documents that have been produced and archived is immense: Journalistic pieces should serve a variety of studies, starting from setting a chronological timeline of the pandemic; medical records and scientific notes regarding the treatment, understanding, and development of vaccines for the virus are central resources to frame a historical narrative of the pandemic from the science history standpoint; documents on emergency policies, laws, decrees, and governmental spendings during the hardest times of the pandemic are essential to understanding the political history of COVID-19, as well as to a social history of governors’ responsibility and the relationship between political instances and citizenship. Finally, testimonies about everyday life, including the much different experiences of quarantine reclusion, fear, grieving, anger, and even happiness, are central to writing the social and cultural history of life under the virus, as well as to open pathways for anthropology, psychology, and memory studies regarding the specificity of this global traumatic event.
The presence of digital tools within all the types of the aforementioned documentation is notable. Nevertheless, it should come as a reminder of one of the major challenges of digital history: the paradoxical feeling that we have never archived so much and so easily, while we still know so little about what exactly digital archiving and digital resources mean.2 Besides asking what vestiges the pandemic has generated, one should also ask: Who is archiving these documents? How are they archived? How will they be accessed?
Documents produced and archived by well-established institutions, either from national and state archives, universities, or big journalism companies, tend to follow a more stable and previously defined path of digital archiving policies. Nevertheless, it is worth reinforcing the importance of management choices between what is to be discarded and what needs to be preserved: as Foucault and Derrida have argued, archiving is an act of power.3 In the end, the choices to compose an archival collection work as a pre-history procedure, determining which issues will be better suited to historical research.4 Additionally, one may rely on the pandemic archives to start questioning the status of digital archiving policies on a global scale; recent studies have shown a worrisome inequality in digitization and digital archives management by comparing private and public archives, libraries, and universities collections in the so-called Global North and Global South.5
But the most interesting piece of the pandemic archival landscape might be the countless digital-born records produced and shared online by ordinary people. These enormous digital archives were created by a handful of agents using various tools and registering methods. One might say that these “digital informal archives”6 follow a pathway that was not invented during the pandemic but was surely catalyzed and globalized in an unprecedented fashion during life under COVID-19. The combined use of social media, oral history, data mining, and crowdsourcing, among other techniques, became the standards for some of the richest collections created during the pandemic. Unlike more traditional archiving institutions, these digital archives have been reaching the memories of many people inside their homes, collecting testimonies of loneliness, fear, and loss, but also curiosity, family reunion, and significant routine changes. Moreover, informal projects have also created archives about those who could not follow isolation or proper health and safety protocols, such as people living in urban slums and indigenous communities. Social groups historically marginalized by the memory shaped in traditional cultural heritage institutions had their memories captured by these informal digital archives worldwide.7
The problem with digital archiving, however, is that collecting records is just half of the process. Archiving something means guaranteeing its preservation and access. And if these informal digital archives are impressive by the creativity in collecting and representing people, the uncertainty about preserving and accessing their collections is astounding. Properly managing a digital archive means, at least, setting a governance policy that includes hardware and software for trustworthy storage, standardization of metadata registering, a backup-copy preserving plan, and an authenticity guarantee identification.8
Nevertheless, the ephemerality and uncertainty of information in the digital world are also part of many digital collections of the pandemic’s memories. When navigating websites or social media pages of many of these archives, oftentimes, there is no clear information on the archiving procedure nor on how to search and guide throughout the collections. In many collections, the place to access the collected documents is social media pages like Instagram or Facebook, while others try to keep up with digital collection tools like Omeka and Drupal. Although some projects have support from universities and established cultural heritage institutions, others are managed by people with no experience but only the goodwill and instincts to lead such collections. Revisiting the digital archives experience on a global level since the end of the 1990s, one can see that asymmetry and inequality are key features of the present landscape as well.
In trying to understand this complex scene better, I am part of a team of researchers building a database about COVID-19 digital archives: the Coronarchive project, led by the Center of Digital Humanities Unicamp in Brazil. My fellowship at the DH Lab is part of improving such a database while also analyzing and developing better digital methods to consolidate the data and make it usable for researchers online. Additionally, my research stay at the IEG involves working on a dissertation that proposes a closer look at the COVID-19 memory landscape, suggesting debates within Theory of History on issues such as historical time and temporalities, memory, trauma, transitional justice, global history, and, of course, digital history.
Captures of the Coronarchive project’s dashboard for COVID-19 digital archives in Latin America. Access:
The digital archives of the pandemic are just the starting point of historiographical research in the 21st century. It allows reflecting on making digital history on a global scale, comparing and re-thinking inequalities, and the role of difference. It also involves interdisciplinarity, collectivity, and understanding that working with digital tools on a present-time subject of global scale is not a monographic and individual venture but a collaborative project. Moreover, such an endeavour results not only in articles and dissertations but also in resources and methods to be shared from an open science perspective. Finally, it requires a constant effort to think about history with a public approach, not restricted to academia but aware of the needs of communities and public interests.
To end this brief report, the concept that supports this research is not different from what historians have always done and known: to be written and told, history requires effort and will. Historical documents do not automatically archive themselves, and historical narratives do not emerge out of nowhere. Evidence must be preserved, and historians are aware of that. In dealing with COVID-19, one can observe a global event that all have experienced, but in very different ways. The history of the pandemic includes diverse scenes such as the drama of doctors and patients in hospitals, people working and partying remotely, children attending school online, workers delivering food for online apps under precarious conditions, and people mourning the losses of beloved ones that couldn’t have access to hospital beds, oxygen therapy, or vaccines. The history of COVID-19 is a global history of diversity that will not be easy to research, write, and tell. On the one hand, the early signs of precarity and inequality concerning the preservation of digital vestiges are a reason to be concerned and alert. On the other hand, researchers are working diligently to address these issues in many places throughout the world – and I am thrilled to say that our work at the IEG DH Lab is part of the collective effort to make it possible that this history exists.
Cite this article as: Ian Marino, "Digital archives of the COVID-19 pandemic: research notes," in Digital Humanities Lab, 08/12/2022, https://dhlab.hypotheses.org/?p=3582.
Featured image: Coronarchive cover illustration. Access: https://www.chd.ifch.unicamp.br/en/node/9.
- Dipesh Chakrabarty, “An Era of Pandemics? What Is Global and What Is Planetary About COVID-19,” In the Moment (blog), October 16, 2020, https://critinq.wordpress.com/2020/10/16/an-era-of-pandemics-what-is-global-and-what-is-planetary-about-covid-19/; Joshua Keating, “COVID-19 Is the First Truly Global Event,” Slate, May 5, 2020, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/05/covid-19-global-event-pandemic.html. [↩]
- Cf. Roy Rosenzweig, Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age (New York, NY: Columbia Univ. Press, 2011); Niels Brügger, The Web as History (UCL Press, 2017), https://doi.org/10.14324/111.9781911307563; Ina Blom, Trond Lundemo, and Elvind Røssaak, eds., Memory in Motion: Archives, Technology and the Social, Recursions (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017). [↩]
- Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (University of Chicago Press, 2017); Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012). [↩]
- Mario Wimmer, “The Present as Future Past: Anonymous History of Historical Times,” Storia Della Storiografia 68, no. 2 (2015): 165–83, https://doi.org/10.1400/240647. [↩]
- Cf. Barbara Göbel and Gloria B. Chicote, Transiciones inciertas: archivos, conocimientos y transformación digital en América Latina (FaHCE, Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación, 2017); Ian Kisil Marino and Thiago Lima Nicodemo, “COVID-19 and Digital Archives in Latin America,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History, by Ian Kisil Marino and Thiago Lima Nicodemo (Oxford University Press, 2022), https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199366439.013.1071; Thiago Lima Nicodemo and Ian Kisil Marino, “Archivo digital en América Latina a escala global,” in América Latina en la historia global, ed. Carlos Riojas and Stefan Rinke (Siglo XXI Editores, 2022), 401–32. [↩]
- Ian Kisil Marino, Pedro Telles da Silveira, and Thiago Lima Nicodemo, “Digital Resources: Digital Informal Archives in Contemporary Brazil,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History, by Ian Kisil Marino, Pedro Telles da Silveira, and Thiago Lima Nicodemo (Oxford University Press, 2022), https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780199366439.013.993. [↩]
- Marino and Nicodemo, “COVID-19 and Digital Archives in Latin America.” [↩]
- Blom, Lundemo, and Røssaak, Memory in Motion. [↩]