Colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealing some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion.Photo Credit: Frederick Murphy

Future Historical Collections: Archiving the 2014 Ebola Outbreak

By Christie Moffatt

USAIDImage: On the front lines of an epidemic: The Batle Against Ebola
Courtesy USAID

When future researchers look back at the current Ebola outbreak, what resources will they want to explore?  What will they want to know?  Of the news and information about Ebola that is created and shared digitally over the web, what will remain to be examined one, ten, or even fifty years from now?  Public health information, first hand experiences, and news about the disease are shared moment by moment on websites, blogs, Twitter, YouTube, and more, documenting the personal, national, and international response to the outbreak.  This content is in a constant state of change and at high risk for loss.  The original intent of these resources is to share news and information—and reaction to this news and information—about the crisis in real time, but it is also likely that this content will have enduring value as historical resources for the future study and understanding of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

A twisted tube with a long tail.
Colorized TEM image of an Ebola virus virion.
Photo Credit: Frederick Murphy

On October 20, 2014 the National Library of Medicine (NLM) announced a new initiative to capture and preserve selected born-digital content documenting the 2014 Ebola outbreak. This collection, part of a broader web archive collection on Global Health Events, is guided by the NLM Collection Development Manual, with valuable input from NLM’s Disaster Information Management Resource Center (DIMRC) Ebola Outbreak 2014 Information Resources. The collection includes websites and social media from Government and non-government organizations, journalists, healthcare workers, and scientists in the United States and around the world, with an aim to collect and preserve a diversity of perspectives on this unfolding health crisis. Selection of content for NLM’s Global Health Events collection is ongoing, and will grow to include resources documenting not only the 2014 Ebola Outbreak, but other major global health events and initiatives.

Looking at the Ebola Outbreak collection now, here are a few examples of what NLM has selected so far:

 

Image of the Doctors Without Borders Website
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). “Liberia: ‘My Son is MSF’s 1,000th Ebola Survivor” in Voices from the Field blog, October 21, 2014.
Image of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Website
United States Agency for International Development (USAID). “I’ve Never Had A Job Like This”: Life inside and Ebola Treatment Unit” in IMPACTblog. On the Front Lines of an Epidemic: The Battle Against Ebola. October 21, 2014

 

Tweets from the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden:

 

Two tweets from Dr. Tom Frieden on september 30, 2014. Local public health officials in TX have begun identifying cloe contacts of #Ebola patient for further monitoring. 1.usa.gov/1rEeVPe

 

Official News Releases from agencies involved in control and prevention of Ebola outbreak:

•    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “CDC Team Assisting Ebola Response in Dallas, Texas,” October 1, 2014.
•    World Health Organization (WHO). “WHO declares end of Ebola outbreak in Nigeria,” October 20, 2014.

As with more traditional library and archive collecting, we cannot know for certain what future researchers will want to explore, and what they will want to know.  Selection is and will continue to be a challenge, made even more challenging by the volume of born-digital material and the Library’s ability to acquire this complex and changing content.  We can only wonder at how the content captured now will be used.   These “future researchers” are a dynamic entity themselves, of course, and the value and use of content will most certainly evolve. By saving this born-digital web content now—the primary source material for future research—we support this future research and provide future generations, who will have what unknowable crisis of their own, with access to the experiences, challenges, and responses of today to the Ebola Outbreak and other significant global health events.

The NLM Global Health Events collection is available at https://archive-it.org/collections/4887.  Selections from this collection, including the content featured in this post, are also available on Pinterest at http://www.pinterest.com/NLMHistory/ebola-2014-a-web-archive-collection/.

Christie in the NLM HMD reading room.Christie Moffatt is Manager of the Digital Manuscripts Program in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine and Chair of the NLM Web Collecting and Archiving Working Group.

4 comments

    1. Thank you for your interest! I’m eager to see what kinds of research will be done using web archive collections such as this.

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