When Crisis Comes: Rapidly Acquiring, Describing, and Preserving Community-Created Digital Collections

The session featured three librarians from the University of Virginia (UVA) Library discussing their efforts to create a toolkit for emergency digital collecting that can be adopted nationally. The speakers collectively highlighted crises at UVA and how the UVA Library responded to each crisis, but it was the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017, an event that drew the most amount of national attention on the university, that forced the institution to look into a sustainable response plan when faced with emergency collecting priorities.

Screen shot of browse items page in UVA Library's crowdsourced digital collection. Item titles are "Black Lives Matter," "A Broken Femur," and "Too Close."
Following the “Unite the Right” rally that took place in Charlottesville, VA, in August 2017, the University of Virginia (UVA) Library mobilized quickly to create a digital collection documenting the rally and the community’s response.

As one of the speakers stated, crises are unplanned, “do not care about your schedule,” could occur due to natural or human causes, and have vague boundaries and indefinite timelines. Previous crises had set some policies in place for collecting social media and digital content, but challenges in staffing, timing, privacy issues related to social media content prevented them from forming a comprehensive collection policy. With assistance from Documenting the Now and other web archiving agencies and agents, the UVA Library established a new emergency framework under recommendations from the Digital Collecting Emergency Response Group.

As a result of the group’s work, a digital preservation librarian position was created to execute the group’s work after the initial response period. The response group brought together personnel and expertise from various departments in the library, namely special collections, preservation, metadata, digital humanities, user experience, and information policy. The group operated under clearly defined functions to be proactive after initial reactive stages. One of the speakers, a member of the response group, acknowledged that local efforts and training for disaster preparedness had mainly focused on the preservation of physical collections with no active efforts for digital collections. The first steps of the group were to create an accession form for URL collection and web archiving. The project launched in August 2017, weeks following the rally, and the community response document was available by early September.

With direction from group members, various units on campus defined their responsibilities and priorities. Special collections would act as the curators for the collection defining scope of collections, ensuring documentation and the Community Response Google Form were created and completed for URL accession, performing outreach to accession web items, and providing input for documentation and access in the absence of a release form. The metadata team normalized user-supplied metadata and recorded additional metadata (e.g. geospatial data) for possible visualizations in the future. The digital humanities team was charged with creating a digital exhibit in Omeka with templates and plugins for visualization, as well as supplying additional security and server needs for the collection and its items. The information policy team set the terms of use with preservation and access as focus. This was crucial for content collected during the heat of the crisis with no release forms or permissions secured. The preservation team serve as “incident commander,” identifying tools and workflows for capture and ingest, as well as creating documentation for long-term collecting and preservation.

As a result of efforts across multiple departments, the UVA Library created a digital collection comprised of local accessions and user-contributed content, and the Unite the Right” Rally and Community Response site is currently hosted using Omeka. Initial challenges included issues related to collecting sensitive content, selecting a name for collection, and debates on neutrality and ethics in the midst of crisis response and management. However, project successes were far greater. With limited personnel available for monitoring and crawling web content, crowdsourcing turned out to be a great way to create a comprehensive collection. Also, video footage and other media content in raw format aptly provided context and sources for adding additional metadata to some digital objects.

At the end of these efforts, the UVA Library ended up creating a national emergency digital collecting toolkit for digital disasters, which was the expected outcome of the response group and its work. Future directions following the creation of the digital collection include:

  • documentation for “digital” disaster preparedness
  • a toolkit that can be used by other institutions to proactively respond to crises
  • a cohesive library unit dedicated to project needs
  • training and tools available to access by other communities facing similar crises and challenges
  • experts serving as consultants for the professional and regional community
  • grant funding (Lyrasis Catalyst Grant) for a customizable Omeka site leading to site templates and plugins that can be shared with communities with fewer resources

If you would like to know more about the digital collection, more information is available from a library blog post about building the collection.

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