Laura Millar is a Canadian archival consultant, author and editor. She is the author of A Matter of Facts: The Value of Evidence in an Information Age, published in 2019 by ALA Neal Schuman.
In 1922, not long after the Spanish flu ceased its deadly rampage, the British economist and Director of the Bank of England Sir Joseph Stamp argued that ‘every time that we die or get married or have babies we get into some statistical mill or other, and our height and our health and our habits, and almost our hopes, are raw material for politicians, economists and taproom orators.’[i]
We do not know if Stamp was reflecting on the Spanish flu in his remarks. We do know that, nearly a century later, people around the world are caught in another statistical mill, as the COVID-19 pandemic storms across the globe. Every morning we wake to shocking statistics and frightening graphs. How many people are infected? How many have died? How many businesses have closed? How far has the stock market crashed? How many families have lost parents, grandparents, husbands, wives – suddenly, without the chance to say goodbye? The barrage of data is relentless and heartbreaking.
If we want to stop the spread of COVID-19 – and we all want that, as soon as possible – then we must capture not just the statistics but the proof. Death certificates, hospital records, financial accounts and government reports give us the numbers we need to track this pandemic. Those records need to be created consistently, kept securely and shared widely. But as Stamp reminded us, behind every data point is a person, family and community. Every statistic represents someone’s height and health, their habits and hopes. We need to preserve the records and data that serve as sources of authentic proof, not just to produce numbers and statistics and graphs but also to capture the evidence that defines us as individuals and families and communities. By gathering the numbers, we save lives. By preserving the stories, we remember the people behind the numbers.
What can we do to respect and protect evidence? We can demand that governments and decision makers create and protect authentic sources of evidence. Complete and accurate death certificates must be created for every person lost. Burial records must capture precise location information for the deceased. Records need to be created of critical actions, from government spending allocations to hospital procurement decisions to the distribution of charitable donations. Citizens have the right to demand proof.
We also need to exercise our own judgement and sharpen our critical skills when confronted with the onslaught of news we face each day. Which are fake stories, and which are accurate reports? We need to set aside our biases, look for the evidence and NOT focus only on those stories that fit our personal or political preferences.
In this realm, a valuable resource is Media Literacy Ireland’s Be Media Smart campaign, which helps educate the public to distinguish between reliable media content and false or misleading information. Also helpful is the guidance provided by Common Sense Education, an American non-profit organisation that helps both children and adults scrutinize media sources for accuracy. These and other groups uphold public accountability and increase public awareness. We need to support them and learn the lessons they offer about upholding facts and rejecting lies.[ii]
We also need to respect science. Medical treatments and technologies should be based on robust research, not on guesses or assumptions – and certainly not on politics. As argued by Lee McIntyre, a philosopher of science, empirical evidence may not by itself determine whether a theory is ‘true’, but deference to evidence ‘keeps us on track even when our imperfect ideas and human weaknesses threaten to throw us off course.’[iii]
Necessity being the mother of invention, though, we can capitalize on the potential of technology. As more and more organisations mandate ‘work from home’ requirements, for instance, many people are adding digital tools to their daily routines. As we take advantage of these innovations, we must not ignore questions of security, privacy and sustainability. Recent stories of ‘Zoom-bombing’ and other security breaches in video conference tools highlight the danger: it is possible to move too fast and break too many things.
But evidence is not just about rights; it is also helps us remember our lives, as people and societies. Around the world, communities are recording the daily ‘thanksgiving’ rituals for health care workers: singing on balconies in Italy; banging pots and pans across Canada; applauding in England; honking horns in New York City. Photographers are documenting the lives of families enduring isolation. Journalists are gathering stories of pandemic life in towns and cities. Doctors and nurses are posting blogs; children are keeping diaries; musicians and dancers are recording ‘stay at home’ performances for social media. We are all creating masses of records. The next step is to ensure those sources of evidence are kept safely, so we can access them today, tomorrow and a century from now.
Unlike ‘old’ paper records, though, which might sit quietly for years without showing any sign of deterioration, digital records will not survive without quick intervention. We cannot assume that museums and archives will collect and capture these sources someday. We need to help them preserve the evidence now. What can we do? We can back up our own digital files safely instead of leaving them on unlabelled USB keys. We can tag our photographs and documents with names and dates and places. We can download our videos from Instagram or Tik Tok, so the recordings are secure in our own computer systems. We can protect our digital devices with robust security protocols, to avoid hacking or manipulation.
We can also take advantage of the reality of lockdown to do a bit of documentary house cleaning. Why not take some time each day to label photographs in family albums; organise emails to get rid of those obsolete ‘meet you for lunch’ messages; and delete draft reports, keeping only the official final version?
The challenge is to decide what is worth keeping. We can ask ourselves several key questions. What evidence do we need to protect our rights? What stories will our grandchildren not be able to tell about us if we do not keep certain records? What gaps can we fill in our community’s story by describing the events in our photographs? What evidence do we want and need as our ‘proof of life’?
We also need to consider a more unsettling but critically important question: what evidence does our family need if we fall ill? In these pandemic times we all need to pull out our wills, medical directives, banking information and computer passwords and make sure everything is accurate. Then we need to assign ‘documentary executor’ responsibilities to someone we trust (while ensuring no one else can access the information) so that someone can access our physical and digital evidence in an emergency. That trusted person needs to know our passwords and login information, not just to our password-protected computer but also to our social media accounts and any other digital or physical storage locations. We do ourselves and our families a favour by ensuring our documentary evidence is safe and accessible in case we cannot access it ourselves.
What can you do next? Speak up and demand that your government captures and protects essential evidence, so society can hold them accountable for their actions. Read news reports with a critical eye, so you are looking for facts and rejecting lies. Interview your grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins now; do not wait until that mythical ‘someday’. Capture these memories on paper, in a video recording, as a slide show, but make sure the files are fully identified and safely stored. Identify the people and places and events depicted in your family photograph albums. Take photographs; write letters; record videos. Show the world that you were here. That you mattered. Because you do.
Like it or not, we are living through history. We all need to create and preserve evidence to help build the story of COVID-19 – a story of people, not numbers. By documenting the substance and story of our lives, we remind the world that each us is more than a statistic, that we are all much more than the sum of our height and health and habits and hopes.
[i] Sir Joseph Stamp, Some Economic Factors in Modern Life (London: P. S. King & Son, 1922), 253.
[ii] Media Literacy Ireland, the host of this blog post, offers extensive guidance on media literacy at https://www.bemediasmart.ie/about. For more on Common Sense Education, see the organisation’s website at https://www.commonsense.org/education/videos/5-essential-media-literacy-questions-for-kids.
[iii] Lee McIntyre, The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019), p. 201.
In a recent 40 minute podcast, John Pelan, Director of the Scottish Council on Archives, and Laura Millar discussed issues of authenticity, evidence and the role of the archivist in today’s ‘post-truth’ world.