Making history accessible: How web archiving helps us to understand the COVID-19 pandemic in the DTES


Brenna Cullen
Master of Library and Information Studies Student
UBC School of Information


Perhaps one of the strangest aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is that, despite the fact that it continues to impact communities around the world, efforts to document it have long been underway.  In other words, while we continue to live through this major global event, we are also actively generating its history so that it may be used, studied, and analysed by our current generation and by generations to follow.  And since much of the information regarding COVID-19 has been published and circulated in our online world, web archiving has been an invaluable tool to record the pandemic’s continuously evolving history online.  But what exactly is web archiving, why is it important to us, and how does it help us to better understand the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic locally?  In this news post, we’ll discuss web archiving as an important tool for information access and empowerment, as well as highlight UBC’s own web archiving collection of COVID-19-related information concerning the Downtown Eastside (DTES).

Web archiving, in brief

We can think of web archiving like an online time machine that allows us to go back in time and access information relevant to a particular event, place, or people.  Through web archiving, data that makes up online content – like a web page, a video clip, or a news article – is gathered and saved so that the content can be readily accessed, read, and navigated in a web archive just like it was on the live web.  Ultimately, the goal of web archiving is to preserve the integrity of online information – that is, exactly as the information exists, or existed, online.  Typically, the process of gathering (or, “harvesting”) this information is performed by crawlers, automated agents that explore the web to collect data about its contents.

While the legwork is mostly automated, web archiving relies on human judgment to decide on the information that’s harvested.  The same applies to the way this information is then organised and preserved within the web archive: the curator (or curators) applies descriptive information to make the information searchable and retrievable by the user according to certain subject-based terms.  When it comes to important events and our collective understanding of them, it’s important to acknowledge the power that web archiving thus holds, as well as the authority that those who curate web archives consequently employ.  After all, the Internet contains information that is relevant to each of us, and having access to this information for later study, reflection, and use is important to individuals, community partners, and community-based researchers alike.  And in the ongoing pandemic, where our collective understanding of COVID-19 and its impact has changed drastically over the last two and a half years, web archiving is an invaluable resource.

COVID-19 Impacts in the DTES: UBC Library’s Archive-It Collection

Since April of 2020, the UBC Library has been actively collecting and storing information pertaining to the ongoing impact of COVID-19 within the DTES using the web archiving service Archive-It.  So far, the 116-item collection includes local news articles, government web pages, and social policy websites that touch on COVID-19’s impact on long-standing issues in the DTES, such as overdose prevention and housing vulnerability.  The collection can be searched and narrowed by subject term, author or content creator, publisher, or content type.  This allows for the collection to be easily navigated according to an individual’s personal interest in a topic or by their desire for information that was published by a certain contributor or information source.  As such, the collection has immense value and use for community members, community partners, students, and researchers, including but not limited to:

  1. The ability to gather and store the content of a web page as it existed at multiple points in time.

In capturing any changes, updates, or deletions that were made to the information on a web page over a certain period of time, web archiving grants us a sense of permanency on the Internet – a place where information is constantly at the risk of being changed or erased.  UBC Library’s Archive-It collection provides us with “snapshots” of the community response to COVID-19 in the DTES, especially as our collective understanding of the novel coronavirus, and later its variants, changed over time.  For instance, web contents for the DTES Response Fund has been collected 19 times since the pandemic’s first year in April 2020, with information being gathered from the website as recently as June 2022.

  1. Providing access to prior knowledge, information, and action for future community planning efforts.

The unprecedented occurrence of the COVID-19 pandemic left governments, community organisations, social services, and community members scrambling for a rapid, effective response to the virus without access to any prior resources or planning efforts to reference.  Having access to the knowledge that we now have about global health crises, how to respond to them, and how they disproportionately impact certain populations is vital to the preparation of swift, thoughtful community responses in the event of similar crises occurring in the future.  The initial COVID-19 response from Atira Property Management, for instance, has been collected by the UBC Library, and having access to this response is helpful for both the organisation and its community members to reflect upon.

This also extends to the ability to hold certain groups accountable for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  For example, the Archive-It collection contains resources that detail the City of Vancouver’s earliest response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the City’s most vulnerable populations.  This allows the community to ask just how effective was this response, and how has this response held up over time?

  1. Validating the lived experiences and memories of the DTES community.

As mentioned previously, the Internet holds information that is relevant to all of us, and there are pieces of our individual and collective history in the news articles, government information, and other online content concerning COVID-19.  Having easy access to this information allows individuals to have permanent, unimpeded access to their lived experiences and memories.  This is particularly important as COVID-19 has only served to intensify and further complicate long-standing issues in the DTES like the overdose epidemic.  For instance, an article from the Tyee in June 2020 documents the very real danger of toxic drug supply and the inability of the Provincial Government to act appropriately on this issue.

Going forward

As we become increasingly reliant on access to information online and the production of online information continues to grow, web archiving will be an important practice in knowledge exchange, knowledge re-use, and knowledge keeping.  Our lives are entangled with the Internet and web archiving is one way to ensure that pieces of our cultural heritage found online never fade away.


Did you find this news post piquing your interest on the vast world of web archiving and other web archiving services like Archive-It?  You may want to check out this detailed, but user-friendly guide on web archiving per the UK National Archives.  Here’s an interesting read about the Internet Archive, the parent of Archive-It, and its use of the Way-Back Machine to document the Internet.  In your individual research of web archiving, you are likely to come across issues of Open Access and the integral relationship it has with web archiving processes.  If you’re in need of a brush up on your Open Access knowledge, you can check out our recent news post on Open Access here.


Do you have questions or feedback about this article? Do you have an idea for the news section or suggestion for the collection? Please reach out to community engagement librarian Nick Ubels at