Documenting COVID-19 and the Great Confinement in Canada

By Sylvain Bélanger, Director General, Transition Team, Library and Archives Canada and Treasurer, International Internet Preservation Consortium

It seemed like it happened overnight, suddenly we were told to work from home and limit our physical interactions with people outside our household until further notice. The information was changing and evolving very rapidly and as we started seeing the rise in COVID-19 related cases globally, the anxiety among colleagues and employees was rising as well. Business rapidly ground to an almost complete halt and only essential services would continue to operate, with strict controls and restrictions.

Spanish Flu and the Great Confinement of 2020

Even during these early days, in these times of uncertainty, a group of individuals saw a parallel between the current situation and the period of the Spanish Flu a century earlier. Thinking ahead to fifty years from now this group was asking the question – how will future generations know about this period of time, the Great Confinement of 2020 as they may call it, or the time of great creativity, or perhaps the time the Internet became our lifeline? Turning the clock back one hundred years to the period of the Spanish Flu has given us hints. Let’s not forget that the tragedy of the early 1900s was documented through newspapers, diaries, photographs, and publications detailing the fight and aftermaths of the Spanish Flu.

In 2020, where social media and websites are key means citizens used to document and get informed, how do we capture such ephemeral product?  Does any country have the answer? Isn’t that the question we often ask ourselves?

The importance of web archiving

Screenshot from the Public Health Agency of Canada website.

This period has given all of us an opportunity to educate news publishers, citizens, and government decisions makers about the work done by web archiving teams across Canada and around the world. The efforts of the IIPC have been pushed to the forefront in this crisis, and have helped us demonstrate the importance of preserving web content for future generations.

In Canada the work entails a coordination of efforts with other governmental institutions as well as with university libraries and provincial/territorial archives to limit duplication of efforts. At Library and Archives Canada (LAC), to ensure a proper reflection of Canadian society, we have captured over 662,000 Tweets with hashtags such as #covidcanada, #covid19canada, #canadalockdown, #canadacovid19, as part of over 38 million digital assets collected for COVID-19 in 2020. Of that a little over 87% of the content is non-governmental, from media and non-media web resources selected for the COVID-19 collection. This includes 33 sites on Canadian news and media collected daily, to ensure we capture a robust sample of the published news on COVID-19. Added to that are non-media web resources that create an overall LAC seed list of over 900 resources. Total data collected to date is a little more than 3.09 TB at LAC alone.

Documenting the Canadian response

In addition to our web archiving program, LAC librarians have noticed an increase in books being published about the crisis. That has been measured through our ISBN team observing an increase in authors requesting ISBN numbers for books about various aspects of the pandemic. In addition, LAC will document the Government of Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic through our Government Records Disposition Program.  In this way the government decision-making on COVID-19 and impact on Canadians will be acquired and preserved by LAC for present and future generations. Also, our Private Archives personnel are monitoring the activities, responses and reactions of individuals, communities, organizations and associations within their respective portfolios. LAC will endeavour to acquire documents about the pandemic when discussing possible acquisitions with current and potential donors and when evaluating offers. Descriptions in archival fonds will now highlight COVID 19 content where appropriate.

The efforts undertaken to date at LAC are meant to document the Canadian response. Are our efforts enough to help citizens 100 years from now to understand the times we were living, and how we responded to and tackled the challenges of COVID-19? Only time will tell whether this is enough, or we need to do any more work to truly document the historical times we live in.

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