Lessons from pandemic web archiving

This post was written by Web Archiving Section chair Tori Maches, Digital Archivist at UC San Diego.

When my supervisor first spoke with me about COVID-19 web archiving, it was late February 2020, COVID-19 hadn’t been declared a pandemic yet, and there was no confirmed community spread in San Diego. A few weeks later, the UC San Diego campus had been evacuated, the governor had issued a stay-at-home order, and I was adapting to a new normal while documenting the campus and county COVID-19 response.

Over the last 17 months, I’ve captured web content related to the campus and San Diego County COVID-19 response from campus, local government, and local news sites. Although I’ve been responsible for UC San Diego’s web archiving work since I started working here three years ago, the COVID-19 collection has felt like a crash course. With that in mind, this blog will cover challenges I’ve run into during this roller coaster of a time, as well as lessons I’ve learned and continue to learn.

Documenting a pandemic meant dealing with both logistical and emotional challenges. Once pages stop explicitly mentioning COVID-19, for instance (e.g. talking about measures or guidelines, but assuming a reader will know why they exist), it can be harder to identify relevant material. To avoid missing material, I kept an eye on local news to see if anything new was happening, and paid attention to new linked pages and resources when I did QA for recent crawls. Coworkers also gave me updates about initiatives, policy changes, and available information, all of which informed my collecting. This helped me balance my web archiving work with other job duties, while still collecting new material as needed. Since I was the only person working on the collection for the most part, this was crucial.

Scope creep was an even greater challenge. The usual “digital FOMO” multiplies tenfold when you’re documenting a historic, rapidly changing event – it’s hard to argue with the impulse to capture everything when the world feels like it’s on fire. I had to step back, ask myself “should I be capturing this,” and recognize that sometimes the answer would be no. Some content was duplicative, was available in “good enough” form elsewhere, or would require a lot of care and thought to capture the right way. I kept my scope to the campus and county response partly because that was my original charge and I didn’t have the bandwidth to expand, and because I wasn’t sure I could capture social media during an ongoing traumatic event in a sensitive way.

Self-care was also a pretty significant challenge. Working on this collection was incredibly rewarding, and I’m proud of how it’s turned out. At the same time, documenting my hometown’s pandemic response is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It took me a while to build breaks into my QA workflows, or ask for help when I needed it, but it was absolutely worth it. Some of my coworkers were able to help with QA for a while, which was invaluable. Talking with friends and colleagues who have worked with trauma records helped as well. It was a good reminder that many of us have done and are doing this kind of work, and we’re not doing it alone.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done over the past year and a half. I’ve documented policy changes, testing initiatives, calls for volunteers, messages of hope and encouragement, and people working together to survive and protect each other in an almost unprecedented time. I’ve learned once again that archival work is about managing and mitigating loss, especially when working with high volumes of material. Keeping my collection scope in mind, remembering I wasn’t the only person documenting this time, and thinking about the logistical and ethical implications of what I collected all helped. I also learned that sometimes, the most productive thing to do is take a break. Most of all, pandemic web archiving was a good reminder that archival work isn’t done in a vacuum, even if you’re the only person working on a collection day to day.