2020 is a year for history books, but not without digital archives


A seasonal change is in the air. With minimal nostalgia for the fading days of this unique summer, let’s turn to how we can make the most of the rest of 2020 – clearly a year for the history books.

As a historian, what concerns me is: what will our story look like for this unprecedented year in a quarter of a century? As the world is reshaped by COVID-19, as well as the ongoing protests on an almost unprecedented scale against racism and police brutality in the United States, Canada and around the world, it is clear that it will be a year for future historians to make sense of.

A child of today will be a historian of 2020 in the future. What sources will they turn to? How will they verify the scattered memories? How will people tell the story of the tumultuous times we live in today? 2020 may be a year for history “books”, but of course the record we leave will be digital.

But at present, Canada, unlike many other countries such as the UK, France, Denmark and others, does not require its national library to grab a complete digital recording of Canadian life. . This needs to change so that we can ensure that historians of the future have every possible source to write a rich, fair and solid historical record.

Social movements, viruses

From the role of video and social media in triggering and documenting protests to businesses and educational institutions that moved en masse online in a matter of days last March, 2020 will be a year that will be understood across digital media.

With the isolation of the coronaviruses, digital media has been extremely important to our interactions with our colleagues, friends and loved ones.

Some trends: Daily Zoom meeting attendees have gone from 10 million in December to 300 million in April, and we doomscroll on social media before bed. Like The New York Times explained, “The virus has changed the way we use the Internet.”

Today, archival work means considering digital documents. Here, the Library and Archives Canada Preservation Center in Gatineau, Quebec, seen in May 2012.
(David Knox. Library and Archives Canada, IMG_1982 / Flickr), CC BY-NC

Minute by minute information

Because the British Library is in part empowered to collect millions from their web pages each year through the use of the power of “legal deposit”, a historian in the UK will have a rich record to explore.

For example, what did the British think of Senior Advisor Dominic Cummings’ 418 kilometer journey from London to Durham when his wife was ill? A researcher will be able to visit the British Library (in most cases an in-person visit is required for legal reasons) to view not only the social media feeds of everyday researchers, but also news websites, UK blogs and beyond.

They will be able to draw on almost anything published on the UK web in 2020. By now, a researcher can already view thousands of pages – and, more importantly, these are maintained by the British Library. for future conservation.

Legal Deposit

This information will be accessible to our future researcher thanks to the power of legal deposit. Legal deposit is defined by the International Federation of Library Associations as a “legal obligation [that] obliges publishers, distributors and, in some countries, printers, to provide free copies of their publications to the national collection ”, and is a power that builds the collections of national libraries, including Library and Archives Canada (LAC) .

In practice, this means that when a book or publication is published, there is a legal obligation to deposit the book with a national library.

What happens when a post is moved in line? What about blogs? Should they have the same responsibility for depositing their material? And, above all, does a national library have a duty to preserve this information on a large scale?

The British Library has been, since April 2013, “authorized to copy documents published in the United Kingdom from the Internet for archiving under legal deposit”. In practice, this means that it archives UK websites every year; it also supplements these archives through organized collections such as the one mentioned above around global pandemics. These tweets, blogs, health websites, etc. are all part of the historical record – and once archived, there is no legal capacity to delete them retroactively.

Basically, scanning collections of copyrighted material means material is amassed that doesn’t seem important today – but could be invaluable to a historian in the years to come.

Canada should vigorously follow

Remarkably avant-garde thinking Library and Archives of Canada Act of 2004 gives Library and Archives Canada similar powers. One section of the law, for example, gives the institution the power to take a “representative sample of documentary material of interest to Canada which is accessible to the public without restriction through the Internet or any other similar medium”.

These laws, however, are not fully utilized. The National Library of Canada does not take a full snapshot of the entire Canadian web domain, meaning that countless voices will be lost to future historians.

A finger pressing a digital button with documents behind.
The notion of legal deposit could be extended to Canada to cover a complete overview of the entire Canadian web domain.

This is not to paint too dark a picture. Library and Archives Canada does an excellent job of capturing documents of interest. During COVID-19, it selectively captured some 38 million COVID-19-related digital assets by July 2020, adding to their strong web archives, including the Government of Canada web archives, which collect and maintain a complete record of federal government websites.

Increasingly, it is making collections, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission collection, available online. In doing so, Library and Archives Canada explicitly mentions its collection powers under the 2004 law, suggesting a growing willingness to share these documents.

We should praise this excellent work and use it as a springboard for the complete collection of all Canadian material.

Collecting quilts: not enough

While Library and Archives Canada has collected material for COVID-19, including social media hashtags as well as media and non-media related websites, even 900 regularly collected websites are a patchwork of how much information posted by Canadians online every day. .

To do justice to what is happening around us and to ensure that historians of the future can understand this moment, the institution and policy makers must act quickly.

We must aim to collect the entire Canadian web domain on an ongoing basis, during and after COVID, to enable future researchers to understand our country. This will require additional funds for Library and Archives Canada. But, at what better time?


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