Thursday, October 6, 2011

Capturing our 2010/2011 summer of disasters: the selective archiving of web publications relating to the Queensland floods and Tropical Cyclone Yasi

This past year has seen a number of tragic natural disasters around the world and Australia has not been immune.  Last summer in Queensland, we experienced what has been described as our ‘summer of sorrow’ - a season of severe and catastrophic weather events causing widespread devastating flooding.  Additionally, one of the most powerful cyclones to make landfall here since records began – Tropical Cyclone Yasi – asserted its destructive category 5 forces on a large area of the state’s north.

Queensland is a big state - Australia’s second largest - and the scale of these disasters was unprecedented.  At one point in our summer of sorrow, most of the state was disaster declared.  It was a season of the worst natural disasters in our state’s history.

As one facet of the State Library of Queensland’s disaster collecting initiatives, we have been selectively capturing websites and online resources relating to these disaster events.  As the disasters unfolded, we quickly set aside our previously determined web archiving priorities for the year to focus specifically on disaster collecting.  What has been captured so far has been organized to two main groups – Queensland Floods (Dec 2010-Jan 2011) and Tropical Cyclone Yasi.  These are publicly available through PANDORA - Australia’s national web archive.  These growing collections feature a range of resources captured from the web including satellite imagery of the floods from NASA’s Earth Observatory – showing brightly colored images which are strangely captivating.  Split screen videos from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority show coral beds before and after Yasi, revealing the damage the cyclone wreaked underwater and providing a sub-aquatic glimpse of the power of nature’s fury.

Disaster relief websites are an important aspect of the collections, demonstrating some of the various ways Australians responded to these events, many rallying online to aid and support disaster victims.  Also included in the collections are several key twitter accounts that were very active during the disaster crises and provided important information to the public.

Flood water rising beside the State Library of Queensland
Building these collections has at times been challenging.  Some areas of our state capital Brisbane were flood affected in January, including our own Library which sits beside the Brisbane River.  All collection items were out of harm’s way, but flood waters did impact on the power supply, preventing us from working in the building.  So for a couple of weeks our homes became our workplace.  We worked with PANDORA archivists at the National Library of Australia - the lead PANDORA agency located interstate in Canberra.  They selected and archived sites for the collections when we could not, and continued to add to these collections.
Permission to archive is obtained from publishers before we harvest.  This can be difficult at the best of times, but even more so when so many organizations, local government councils and communities were in major disaster recovery mode.

Ruined possessions and a flood damaged home
For me our disaster collecting is unlike other archiving projects.  I’m often reminded about the lives lost, families homeless, the businesses in ruin; but to build these collections means that we are capturing images, information and voices that will be available for the future.

While the actual disaster events were enormous, horrifying and destructive, they are only part of the story.  Websites related to disaster recovery and reconstruction are also included in the archive.  It’s the long road to recovery – the process of rebuilding and reconnecting - that also needs to be preserved.  These collections will contribute to the story - to help future generations comprehend not only what was faced, but how extreme and widespread adversity was overcome; how so many were knocked down but got back up again.

On Day of Digital Archives I’m reminded how quickly and unexpectedly things can change around us, and how those of us involved in contemporary, web and event archiving need to be flexible, responsive and able to navigate the unforeseen.  Teamwork is very important.  Web archiving is such a huge task that we work in partnership with others and achieve results through combined efforts.  But overall I’m thinking about how as professionals we have a responsibility to capture and preserve what we can; to contribute what we are able to the collective memory of significant, momentous and on occasion calamitous events that will be defining moments for individuals, for communities, and indeed for the history of a state.

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