Harvey Memories Project will help preserve nation’s first social media storm

A new online archive aims to prevent the loss of valuable Hurricane Harvey-related photos, videos and other digital data

Even at the turn of the last century, experts were warning us: Digital memories can and do fade. As people across the world continue to upload roughly 1.8 billion photos per day, the risk of accidentally losing that data will only grow greater with time.

Arun Chaudhary, “Man in Camouflage Waders with Head in Hands,” Harvey Memories Project

Arun Chaudhary, “Man in Camouflage Waders with Head in Hands,” Harvey Memories Project

A new digital archive at Rice aims to prevent the loss of valuable Hurricane Harvey-related memories by preserving them within the university’s digital collections with professional precision. The Harvey Memories Project was one of several awarded funding by the Rice Houston Engagement and Recovery Effort (HERE) and the Humanities Research Center last year. The project’s goal is to build a state-of-the-art, open-access digital repository to collect, preserve and publish community-contributed memories of the storm in multiple formats, including photos of storm preparations and cleanup, audio and video recordings of the storm in progress, survivors’ narratives and even art.

“Everyone was on social media during Hurricane Harvey,” said Caleb McDaniel, associate professor of history and one of the many Rice collaborators on the project. Other partners include the Harris County Public Library, the Houston Public Library and the University of Houston Libraries. “It was probably the most digitally mediated natural disaster in U.S. history.”

Time Magazine called the August 2017 hurricane the nation’s “first social media storm,” while millions of Gulf Coast residents documented their own firsthand experiences on smartphones or computers, whether texting photo updates to friends or sharing videos on Facebook. But, said McDaniel, “digital memories can also be lost.” And so, inspired by such projects as the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB), which houses artifacts from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the Boston Marathon bombing digital archive Our Marathon, the Harvey Memories Project was created.

Brandy McDaniel, “Emergency Alerts,” Harvey Memories Project

Brandy McDaniel, “Emergency Alerts,” Harvey Memories Project

There are over 25,000 items in the HDMB collection; accumulated photos and videos taken by Gulf Coast residents during Harvey easily reach that number. “You don’t want all that stuff to get lost and never preserved or archived in a way that future generations can access and learn from,” said McDaniel.

“That’s where librarians come in,” said Lisa Spiro, executive director of digital scholarship services for Fondren Library. Any photos, videos, oral histories or other digital donations to the Harvey Memories Project will be professionally processed, cataloged and archived at Rice. Online, the archive is both permanent and easily accessible.

“We’re the stacks, there for people to explore in an unstructured way,” McDaniel said.

In addition to soliciting contributions from the entire Gulf Coast community — anyone affected by Hurricane Harvey is invited to share their memories, not just Houstonians — Spiro and the team are planning outreach events at local libraries and community centers to reach those whose stories have not yet been shared or heard.

“This reflects librarians’ increasing focus on work with local communities,” said Spiro. Engaging Houston as a strategic academic partner to collect and analyze data is also one of Rice’s goals for its Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2).

Lisa S., “JJ Watt Sign in Front of Flooded House,” Harvey Memories Project

Lisa S., “JJ Watt Sign in Front of Flooded House,” Harvey Memories Project

In future months, look for community outreach events in neighborhoods such as Kashmere Gardens. Nearly a year after Hurricane Harvey, the McCrane-Kashmere Gardens Neighborhood Library is one of the six Houston Public Library branches that remain closed due to flood damage. A mini-library has since opened at the Kashmere Multi-Service Center, where the Harvey Memories Project plans to set up in August to collect digital donations from the community.

In the meantime, the Harvey Memories Project is open for those who are in search of a place to tell their own tales. Many of those affected by the storm have only recently begun to get back on their feet, let alone process or preserve the memories of what happened when 30 trillion gallons of water fell along the Gulf Coast.

“We also hope that this will help people to heal,” Spiro said.

For more information about the Harvey Memories Project or to share your own digital memories, visit harveymemories.org.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.