The following is a post by Casey E. Davis, founder of ProjectARCC.
Hi everyone, and thank you for visiting ProjectARCC’s new website. We are a task force of archivists concerned about the impact of climate change on our profession, and we believe that climate change should be a core issue of activism among the archival community. That’s why we are mobilizing to address the issue of climate change, and today I’d like to share our story with you.
Last October, my employer (WGBH) held an event called Green Media Innovation IdeaLab, where climate scientists came to speak about how and why public media producers should be focusing efforts on creating and sharing climate-related programming to bring about more awareness and understanding of climate change. I actually didn’t attend the event; climate change didn’t seem like a really big or important issue to me. But I didn’t know much about it, either.
About a week after the event, my boss, who had attended the event, shared with me some of what she learned, specifically some of the more recent research by climate scientists on how quickly our planet and climate are changing, as well as how we will experience climate change in our lifetime. To be honest, climate change had rarely ever crossed my mind. But it got me thinking, and because I’m a worry wart, it got me to worrying. And that’s an understatement.
The worrying actually got the best of me for a couple of months. But eventually I decided I needed to redirect my feelings and seek to learn as much as possible about the issue, with the goal of informing myself about how I can affect climate change on a personal level. I read the research, and a lot of climate scientists’ and activists’ blogs. I read the entire Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which cited more than 12,000 scholarly articles and was written by 242 lead authors and 436 contributing authors. The report unequivocally determined that 1) the human cause of climate change is clear; 2) emissions are the highest in history and are unprecedented over millenia; 3) the oceans and atmosphere have warmed and sea levels are rising; 4) continued carbon emissions will cause severe, dangerous and irreversible effects; and 5) action to reduce and eliminate carbon emissions needs to happen NOW.
I read about methods of reducing ones personal carbon footprint. I experienced firsthand ways in which the media communicates (and often miscommunicates) the issue, and after absorbing all of this information, I learned that half of United States senators don’t think that climate change is caused by humans. Some don’t even think climate change is happening.
All the while I was reading and learning about climate change, I did so while wearing my archivist hat. I immediately wondered, “Why isn’t this a core issue of activism within the archival profession?” We are responsible for the preservation of history for future generations; we should be as concerned and involved in ensuring the preservation of our habitable planet for future generations.
I identified four areas in which there is need for focus within the archival profession around the issue of climate change, and I shared my thoughts at the Spring 2015 NEA/MARAC joint meeting. Along with these four issues, I asked a lot of questions. That’s because I didn’t and still don’t have answers to these issues, but my goal was to inspire one or more people to join me in trying to work toward finding answers to the questions.
1. Protect our collections from the impact of climate change
Last year was the hottest year ever recorded. Last week, temperatures were 40 degrees in Boston, 95 degrees in Fairbanks, Alaska, and 120 degrees throughout India (more than 2,200 people died of heat strokes, and 17 million/10% of their chickens died). Two weeks ago, the long drought in Texas ended — with so much rain that it could have covered the entire state with 8 inches of water. My father’s first cousin’s house was completely washed away. We’ve been setting unsettling records like never before.
One example of current actions being taken in risk and disaster planning is the Union of Concerned Scientists, who have been working with the National Park Service to look at the risks and vulnerabilities of national landmarks due to the future effects of climate change. In a recent report, the Union of Concerned Scientists identified 30 national historic landmarks, including Boston’s Faneuil Hall and Long Wharf, and published case studies how climate change will affect these locations with the goal of illustrating more broadly how climate change is an urgent problem. When Superstorm Sandy hit the eastern seaboard in 2012, two national landmarks — Liberty and Ellis Island — were devastated. Tens of thousands of archival materials and 19,000 artifacts at Ellis Island Immigration Museum had to be relocated.
How are archivists preparing for more frequent extreme weather events? We need to identify how our collections are vulnerable, and how our locations make them vulnerable. As the earth’s atmospheric temperature continues to warm, wet areas will get wetter, dry areas will get dryer, and sea levels will rise. We need to realize that the infrastructure from 50 or 100 years ago may not stand up to changing conditions.
2. Reduce our professional carbon and ecological footprint
Earlier efforts to identify ways to reduce our professional carbon footprint were taken in 2007 when Sarah Kim, a PhD candidate at UT Austin published a paper on building sustainable archival facilities. For many of us who work in academic or larger institutions, decisions like these are not made by archivists; however, as preservers of history with a concern for the future, archivists can and should be advocating for the use of more sustainable resources to power, cool and sustain our facilities. Additionally, with the increase of digital files, we should be considering ways to reduce the amount of energy we use to store and preserve our files. Audiovisual archivists debate over whether best practice for video preservation files should be uncompressed or lossless. One requires much less storage, spinning disk, and energy than the other.
We are not exempt from the need to participate in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, but in all reality, if all of the archives across the globe became completely sustainable, this would be a just minuscule fraction of the amount of reductions needed to meet the necessary goals. Reductions in use of energy generated by fossil fuels among the archival community will, however, demonstrate that we care about the future of a stable planet and are taking the steps that we can to curb emissions. What would be even more impactful is for archivists to support leaders who understand that climate change is the most urgent issue of our time and are willing to do something about it.
3. Elevate our relevant collections to increase public awareness and understanding of climate change
What collections are relevant to the issue of climate change? How can we make potential users — scholars, journalists, digital humanists, activists, scientists, students, educators, deniers and the general public — aware of these collections that can be used to make historical connections with the current issue of climate change? For example, I plan to curate an exhibition of relevant materials in our collection by the end of this year.
Another great example is oldWeather.org, a collaboration between NARA, NOAA, participating libraries, and users to collect and provide access to historical data about the oceans. The goal is to aid in understanding the weather of the past to help scientists understand what the weather will do in the future.
At Northern Arizona University, the Cline Library has collaborated with the Biology department at NAU to provide the Cline Library Hanks Scholar fellowship to students to use the library’s special collections, specifically photograph collections, to understand the landscape and geography of Arizona and compare it to today’s landscape by taking photographs of the same locations. The Hanks Scholar project is a component of the Southwest Experimental Garden Array (SEGA) project to match historic and contemporary photographs to show the effects of climate change on the region.
There are other libraries and archives that are actively making their collections relevant to climate change accessible for research on the topic, such as the National Park Service, but information about what archives have relevant material is difficult to find using the internet searching techniques of a typical user. An online portal, list of finding aids, or at least an online bibliography that points users to relevant historical collections related to climate change would be extremely valuable to all types of users and is a project on our agenda.
4. Preserve this epochal moment in history for future research and understanding
How are we as archivists documenting and preserving this moment in history? Are we adequately and efficiently working with climate scientists and climate activists to acquire and prepare their collections for long-term preservation and access? As many of these collections are born digital, we know that they are even more vulnerable to being lost before they can be preserved. It’s crucial that we begin to identify what collections exist and start working with these groups to ensure that this time in history is preserved for future generations.
I spoke with Professor Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication, and here is his opinion on the most important role of archivists around climate change:
“This is the single most powerful thing your profession can do…How do you document and preserve for future generations this critical moment in the history of our local communities, our states, our nation, and the whole world?”
ProjectARCC is already working to address this piece of our mission through collaboration with WeKnew.org, a campaign that is seeking to gather messages from parents and grandparents to their loved ones describing what they know about climate change and what they are doing about it. We are working with WeKnew.org to find a permanent home for the collection of letters, develop a plan for distributing them to the intended recipients in 2050, and ensure the long term preservation and access of the letters for future researchers to understand how people perceived and acted on climate change in the early 21st century. Read my letter, and I encourage you to write and submit a letter as well.
After giving my talk at NEA/MARAC, I asked the audience to consider joining me in addressing the four issues outlined above, and as you can tell, we’re on it! I didn’t know what to call the group/project at that point — whether it be a task force or just a group of archivists who were as worried as I was, but I’m so excited to begin directing our concern into action — in the form of activism, outreach, and education within and beyond the archival community. Our inaugural meeting was held on Earth Day 2015, where we (actually, Kristen Weischedel!) came up with our name, ProjectARCC. Together we identified ways in which we can achieve our four-fold mission, and we look forward to pursuing this important effort.
Contact us with ideas and/or to get involved!