Archiving the present: Documenting OHSU history-in-progress

Signs from OHSU student-led Black Lives Matter Protest on June 13, 2020. Signs read "Black Lives Matter" and "Nurses Against Racism."

Historically speaking, university archives are often a bit … behind the times. It’s the nature of the work. We retain records that are no longer in active use, but which document the people, processes, and progressions of an institution. What comes to us is usually already considered “history.” Archives programs are generally understaffed in relation to the volume of historical materials we receive, and it takes some time to work through those records so that we can post descriptions online that allow researchers to discover them. Given this situation, many university archives do not have the resources to actively go out and collect materials as they are being created.

But recently, archives the world over have shifted into more active work. First, there was COVID-19; a global event that shuttered businesses, sequestered populations, and forced archivists – normally knee-deep in old paper and now relegated to teleworking – to shift priorities, and recognize our role in documenting such an important historical moment while it is happening. At OHSU, we created the Documenting COVID-19 @ OHSU project that asks our community members to deposit records with us that document their experiences with the pandemic. As a health sciences institution, our perspective will be significantly different from many other academic institutions.

Vitae Mensae, a sculpture by Larry Kirkland located on the OHSU Marquam Hill campus, wears an over-sized face mask with the words "Black Lives Matter" printed upon it.
Vitae Mensae, by Larry Kirkland, wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” face mask

Then, while still in the pandemic, the United States, along with many other parts of the world, seemed to experience a dramatic awakening to the reality of systemic racism, police brutality, and the many other inequities of our world that derive from entrenched systems of oppression. Many archives shifted again to documenting this ongoing movement and struggle. At OHSU, instead of creating another formal documentation project, we reused our COVID-19 project’s existing digital submission structure to create a more generic submission tool, and used our social media channels to request our community’s help in documenting events in the area, especially as they relate to health initiatives and care.

With so much happening in relation to protests, and a growing concern over the safety of protesters documented in archival collections, a recent donor asked about our policy around blurring the faces of protesters in images that are submitted to the archives. To be honest, I didn’t have a great answer, as we have no such policy. Archives tend to preserve what comes to us in its original form. What shouldn’t be shared publicly is restricted and kept stored away until a sufficient time has passed and the records can be shared again. But “the now” is different. We may want to put images in our Digital Collections to share more widely in the moment. So how do we create open and useable collections while also maintaining the privacy and safety of those actively protesting for systemic change?

5 OHSU students pose with signs at a student-led Black Lives Matter Protest on June 13, 2020. Signs read "Black Lives Matter," "Nursing Students for BLM," and "Defund Police, Fund Health."
OHSU student-led Black Lives Matter protest, June 13, 2020 (donated by Brittany Brandenburg)

So far, I’ve come up with two options. The first is more standard: people submitting photos can add a stipulation to the donation that states protesters faces must be blurred in any use of the image. I’ll note that this option does not eliminate privacy concerns, because it means that the archives still retains an uncensored version of the image, which could possibly be made available in an official public records request. A second option is to blur faces in the image yourself before submitting it. This makes it impossible for the archives to ever share an uncensored version. A group of Black archivists, called the Blackivists, has assembled “Five Tips …” on documenting protests and their advice is helpful here: tip number 3 recommends blurring faces and scrubbing your metadata, and offers a free tool to do it. If you submit files to the OHSU archives via our online submission form, it does not record your IP address or location information. The contact information that you choose to provide is what will be associated with the records, so should be taken into consideration in regards to privacy concerns.

For additional insight on some of these issues, Documenting the Now has a white paper on the ethics of archiving social media that speaks to these issues. And if you or someone you know needs some professional archival assistance, they have also assembled a growing list of “Archivists Supporting Activists” where you can locate an archivist in your area that is available for help. If you have thoughts, questions, or comments related to these topics, please share them below or contact me directly at