On International Archiving Day…The archive as a nation’s memory and witness to its events
History is made with documents. Without documents, it’s difficult to answer the persistent question of what occurred without veering into spaces of doubt on the one hand and diverging into differing narratives on the other.
The development of human civilization passed through long, previously missing, stages. Traditional archiving attempts contributed greatly in preserving and providing documents that, when pieced together, build an understanding of missing moments in human civilization. Ages ago, people realized the necessity of documentation, through clay tablets or papyrus sheets, and took precautions to preserve their history in secure places. At the inception of paper, it was possible to create multiple copies of documents, which were kept in personal and private libraries and treated with care.
Hence, it was a necessity for every civilization, whether in its divisions of countries, states, or towns, to hold an archive containing all information, from documents that ensure the protection of one’s property to personal identification to intellectual and scientific property. Classified within these archives are the histories of events and scientific and philosophical discoveries. The presence of these archives later enabled researchers to read, analyze, and build on preserved documents, translating them to present day circumstances.
Documents have played a pivotal role in conflicts throughout the ages as victors often crafted the narrative of events. Within preserved documents and personal memoirs, however, historians are given the opportunity to look at accounts of conflicts from differing sides to better understand its variety of experiences within the conflict—often this is done through the personal accounts of the victims.
However, modern technology has changed this equation, providing everyone with the means to document, including victims whose voices are sometimes louder than those of the perpetrators. This makes preserving these voices—in their diversity and variety—vital in building the memory of modern conflicts.
The shift to digital and electronic archiving is an additional necessity guided by the abundance of information needing to be archived. This includes identifying ways to protect information from damage and loss and theft, as well as ensuring its permanence. Most importantly, this archiving practice requires indexing the information to ensure its access at the modern speed of information access. The Syrian conflict demonstrates a clear example in the development of understanding archiving in the past 12 years. As urgent necessities emerged, a number of factors and changes contributed to the formation of the archive.
Since 2011, journalists, activists, and everyday people began reporting on what was happening, and they found, through simple methods, an opportunity to prove and document daily human rights violations using social media, a new development at the outset of the conflict. The scenes published by activists on social media varied from moments of daily life to destruction, military movements, and many other moments. Soon into the conflict, there were pages specifically collecting visual content and daily news from all around Syria. These pages represent the first monitoring and archiving of social media posts from the Syrian conflict.
However, many factors began to threaten the preservation of this content, mainly the deletion of content by social media platforms. Here, journalists realized that their channels and pages are not protected archives. From this moment, the concept of the archive returned to occupy its place as a necessity in preserving memory and ensuring the preservation of digital content.
Beginning in 2014, the Syrian Archive assumed the role of collecting and preserving content made available online as well as organizing this information after its verification and facilitating access to the information for later use. The Syrian Archive makes its content available as a resource for researchers, journalists, and human rights defenders, through the databases and investigations available on its website. The Syrian Archive also responds to external requests for access to archived copies of posts that are no longer available online for use in advocacy or accountability efforts.
In 2018, Mnemonic was established. Mnemonic, the umbrella organization of Syrian Archive, has also established other archiving projects in conflict countries, such as Yemen, Sudan, and Ukraine, using the tools and experiences from the Syrian Archive, adjusting them to the specific context of each country.
Like a traditional archive is in constant danger during the years of war, the digital archive has its own threats, specifically in the face of content moderation policies adopted by social media platforms. Since adoption in 2017, content moderation using artificial intelligence removes content with a disregard for contexts of online information.
On International Archives Day, the archive’s presence in places of war and conflict is elevated to a form of resistance as it attempts to record current events as an answer to any current or future questions at all narratives, historical, and judicial levels.