The Endangered Archives Programme in a time of change - looking back on 2020
We're now fully embarked on 2021, with changes and new challenges happening all the time, and yet every day feeling much like the last. With a little distance from 2020, it seems the right time to step back and look at the year that has just been, and what it meant for EAP in particular.
When I have time to read, I try to keep track of interesting passages that I might want to revisit later. Several years ago, I copied these words from John Gray's Straw Dogs into my notes, and I just came across them again this week:
"As a side effect of climate change, new patterns of disease could trim the human population. Our bodies are bacterial communities, linked indissolubly with a largely bacterial biosphere. Epidemiology and microbiology are better guides to our future than any of our hopes or plans."
In this book, written in 2002, Gray is pretty pessimistic about humanity's prospects, too much so for me, but it is striking to see how right he was. In 2020 we had to rethink almost all of our hopes and plans, due to a pandemic that is indeed inextricably linked to the climate crisis (see this article in The Lancet).
For EAP, this meant completely rethinking our way of operating. In February, we began to question whether our international panel would be able to come to London to review the year's applications, and by early March it was clear that it wouldn't be possible. We decided to postpone the whole round of funding, giving us and our project applicants the space to wait and reassess what would be possible and what might not. And for the projects EAP is currently funding, we offered extensions and advice, reaching out to them over the course of the year to see where they were, and what adjustments they needed to make to ensure they stayed safe through the pandemic.
In the meantime, as the EAP team adjusted to working from home, we found it was still possible to put new digital collections from completed projects online. Over the course of 2020 over a million images went up on the EAP website, representing a vast range of materials, geographic regions and time periods. To pick five of these almost at random:
- EAP813 Preservation of the disappearing book heritage of Siberian Buddhists
- EAP816 Selective digitisation and preservation of the photographic archive of the ‘Vasile Parvan’ Institute of Archaeology, Bucharest, Romania
- EAP820 Documenting Slavery and Emancipation in Kita, Western Mali
- EAP880 Fragments of Sikkim: Preserving and presenting the palace archives of a Himalayan Kingdom, 1875-1975
- EAP896 Documentation of Endangered Temple Art of Tamil Nadu
Global lockdowns meant more people visiting us online as well. When we looked at our website statistics at the end of the year, one thing was especially good to see: people were coming to the site from the countries where new projects had just been completed and put online. For example, we saw a big increase in users from Peru after a collection of Peruvian newspapers (EAP498) went online. This was helped by many Peruvian and other Spanish-speaking users of social media enthusiastically posting about the new collection being made available.
The first months of lockdown turned out to be a good opportunity to trial a crowdsourcing project we had been thinking about. The EAP team chose EAP016, a collection of Siberian photographs and used the free platform Zooniverse. Among our contributors were the British Library’s own Russian language curators who also translated Zooniverse site terms into Russian. We also had help from the amazing Steppe Sisters Network, a group of more than 100 female archaeologists who study and/or live in the region.
As debates and action on colonialism and racism intensified, we looked at ways to address this in EAP's practices. For instance, our cataloguing guidelines meant that we recorded colonial-era names such as Rhodesia and Dutch East Indies if these were in use at the time of the archive; yet this meant these names appeared as key terms on the EAP website, without comment or context. We decided to change our cataloguing practice and use modern place names in the field that appears as index terms on the website, and keep historical place names in free-text fields where they can be discussed in context. We tried to highlight the resources for Black Studies in the EAP collections, created by so many great projects in Africa and the Caribbean (see this earlier blog post for example.)
As we moved towards the autumn and some of our grant applicants decided they weren't going ahead with their applications, we decided to make a limited call for another round. In the midst of a period of great uncertainty, and as the second wave of the pandemic loomed in many places, we weren't sure what response we would see. It was both surprising and heartening to receive so many applications planning new projects across the world. This above everything has made me realise that we humans will not give up on our hopes and plans. We may need new hopes, and we definitely need to be creative about coming up with different, more flexible plans, but we continue to strive to make things better. And in a time when we are separated from each other, our thoughts turn to new ways of connecting.
Having started this post with a rather pessimistic quote, I'll end with a hopeful one, by one of my favourite poets, Langston Hughes:
Sometimes when I'm lonely,
Don't know why,
Keep thinking I won't be lonely
By and by.
Post written by Sam van Schaik, Head of EAP