archive, asahi shinbun

COMMENTARY/ Andrew Gordon: Archiving an unprecedented disaster, asahi, 3/11/12


Special to The Asahi Shimbun

The disaster that befell Japan a year ago was extraordinary in numerous ways: the earthquake’s magnitude and duration; the tsunami’s scarcely imaginable height and destructive force; the horrific cascade from earthquake to tsunami to reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

These are the most obvious unprecedented aspects of this tragedy.

But “March 11” is also unprecedented as a natural and human disaster striking a nation in the forefront of the global economy in a newly digital age.

By newly digital, I refer to a world where not only vast amounts of information, but also increasingly diverse and intensive social interactions, are located in the virtual world of websites and social media.

In this context, it is no surprise that numerous organizations have been engaged since last spring in an ambitious range of initiatives to create a digital archive of the March 11 disasters.

Much of the record of any historic event in today’s world is “born digital.” And many items born in print are also available in digital form, or soon will be. To understand major world events—not only disasters but political upheavals—and to keep a record and a memory of them for survivors, for scholars, for policy-makers, and for a wider public, it is simply essential that we collect and preserve these digital resources and make them accessible in creative ways.

The contents of such a digital archive are wide-ranging. They include copies of all sorts of websites: government sites ranging from cities and towns, to prefectures, to agencies of the national government and foreign governments; individual blogs; websites of Japanese NPO’s or international NGOs, and more.

But the items to be stored in a digital archive go well beyond websites to include video recordings, sound recordings, digital photographs, digitized maps enriched with geographically located data, and digital copies of all manner of official or private reports and other text documents.

Finally, and of increasing importance, a digital archive of the present day must preserve the record of social media such as Twitter or the public pages of Facebook and similar endeavors.

There is an urgent need to collect materials for a digital archive of the catastrophe triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake, especially because digital resources are uniquely impermanent. Once a book or a magazine article is published and shelved in a secure building, it is both preserved and unchanging. Websites, in contrast, are fundamentally unstable. They are continually modified. Items once present are later taken down. And many sites are eventually closed down completely. Equally vulnerable are the millions of individual photographs or video recordings placed on public sites such as YouTube or Flickr, not to mention the multitude of Twitter feeds and retweets.

Recognizing the fragility of the digital record, a pioneer in the field of website archiving called Internet Archive took action within hours of the magnitude-9.0 earthquake.

This nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, in partnership with the Archive-It project at Virginia Tech University, began to collect and preserve copies of the many websites that were already posting information about the disaster. In the following weeks, numerous organizations in Japan and a few elsewhere began related efforts at collecting and preserving—and in some cases creating—digital records of the disaster and its unfolding aftermath.

The Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard initially focused on identifying websites for Internet Archive to add to its collection, along with providing key words and descriptions to enhance access to these materials.

One year later, an informal global network of archiving partners has come into being and continues to expand, and our own role has expanded as well. Important projects active since last spring or summer include the National Diet Library, the Michinoku Shinrokuden project of Tohoku University, All311 (an independent NPO), Yahoo!Japan, and saveMLAK (dedicated to preserving digital materials and hard copies of museums, libraries, archives, and community centers throughout the Tohoku region).

Many other organizations are in the process of collecting materials and making them available, including mainstream media (although the digital record of Japan’s media is mostly available only to subscribers).

Clearly, then, “our” digital archive of this disaster is in fact a multi-sited network of archiving projects. No one group claims ownership or leadership. This is both an exciting development, and one that poses challenges. How can we best insure access to the full array of resources across multiple archiving projects? Is there a way to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Working with another group at Harvard called metaLab, by coincidence founded just one month before the disaster, the Reischauer Institute has been seeking to do this by creating an access point to these many archival collections that will be far more than a portal.

We aim to create an archive that will function as a truly dynamic public space, breaking down the boundary between archive creators and users.

As users access archived materials, they will have an opportunity to give them greater meaning by adding new information such as keywords or explanations. This information becomes part of the archive and helps future users gain better access and understanding of the materials. Sorting by date and time, by place, or by topic, users can sift through materials located in multiple archives, ranging from blogs, to photographs, to sound recordings and moving pictures. They can contribute their own testimonials and photographs, and propose new websites to be collected. They will soon be able to create annotated personal “collections” of materials around their topics of interest and invite others to consult that collection.

In addition, the user interface will “learn” about connections that are relevant to these users and build that knowledge into future searches and collection building.

How will such a networked archive actually be used? Rather than spell out a personal or institutional agenda for using the archive, let me end in the spirit of the film “Field of Dreams.” The hero of that movie carved a baseball diamond out of a corn field in Iowa, with the motto “build it, and they will come.”

Our hope in building this archive is that a broader public will come forward to draw on its resources in their own efforts at remembering and understanding, and join us as co-creators.

An alpha version of our user interface is available by registration, free of charge, at


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Andrew Gordon is Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Professor of History and Director of the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University.


About liz

from the u.s., recently moved from kobe to sendai, japan, researching community-based housing recovery after disaster.


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