Securing Archives in Insecure Situations: Lessons from Mali

“Centuries of Invaluable Manuscripts Lost to Extremists” could have been the headline. But it wasn’t, because Timbuktu archivists made plans to preserve them. Keeping digital archives can be easier, but no less critical. Here’s what you can do.

During the recent violence in Mali, we heard reports that Islamist rebels had set fire to the manuscript library at the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Timbuktu. Initially, it was feared that thousands of the ancient manuscripts had been destroyed, but later reports claimed that only a limited number of items were damaged, thanks to the foresight of librarians and concerned citizens.

CC Image courtesy of MomLes on Flickr.

A manuscript in Timbuktu. CC Image courtesy of MomLes on Flickr.

When the rebels moved into the city last year, library officials started moving their collections to other libraries and safe hiding places. Even before then, the Ahmed Baba Institute was involved in preserving manuscripts from the region, including a project with the University of Cape Town and the Ford Foundation to digitize selected works. While details of what has been lost are not clear, the Institute’s mitigation of the complete destruction of its collection is certainly a relief, and demonstrates the effectiveness of good preservation practices and disaster preparedness.

This incident prompted me to reflect on digital video collections that may be located in dangerous or unstable political situations, especially those that document human rights violations. What are some key preservation strategies that could mitigate the loss of important audiovisual documents in times of disaster?

There is a saying in the library world that “lots of copies keep stuff safe.” This is especially true for digital content, which can be rendered completely unusable with just the slightest damage. Fortunately, it is easy to make perfect bit-for-bit copies of digital material. Recommended practice is to have at least 3 copies. This does not include versions on video sharing websites like YouTube, which are neither intended nor set up to allow access to your stored files.

Geographic separation
It is also best to keep at least one copy in a different location in case something catastrophic happens at one site.  The appropriate location depends on the threats you face. For example, if you are in a politically unstable region, keep a copy outside of the region; if you are in an environmentally vulnerable area, keep a copy outside of the area.

Organizational separation
In cases where you or your organization as a whole is under threat, it may make sense to house a copy of your videos with another secure organization.  WITNESS, for example, deposits copies of its videos to the University of Texas Libraries.

Technological separation
If possible, store your copies on 2 different types of storage media (e.g. networked storage, external hard drives, offline data tape, etc.) so that you are protected against the particular vulnerabilities of each one.

Collection management
While a lot more could be said on this topic, basic collection management practices like having an inventory of your collection, knowing what and where the most important or irreplaceable parts of your collection are, and clearly naming or labeling items become invaluable in emergency situations when time is of the essence.

Disaster recovery plan
Post-disaster situations can be chaotic. Have a plan in place in advance for how to respond and recover after disaster strikes – provide concise instructions and training, designate roles for people, have supplies on hand, and know who you can call for assistance.

Contingency Plan
In cases where you or your organization may have to give up your collection permanently, it is useful to identify a trusted entity that is willing to inherit the responsibility for your collection going forward.

As the librarians in Timbuktu and elsewhere have shown, it may not be possible to prevent a crisis from striking. But through preservation-minded strategies and planning we can maximize the preservation of our documentary heritage.

Yvonne Ng is the Archivist at WITNESS, where she manages a collection of over 5,000 human rights videos shot by our partners around the world.

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