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The Charlie Archive Documents a Global Response
Charlie Hebdo memorial

How does a library capture a global debate about freedom of the press? The attacks on the Paris headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in January 2015 by Islamic extremists provoked a worldwide conversation through all forms of media. Harvard librarians are collecting and organizing a diverse array of visual and textual materials such as blogs, cartoons, tweets, banners, and graffiti that represent the multiple viewpoints articulated in the aftermath in a digital archive. The Charlie Archive at the Harvard Library will be open and available to all Harvard Library users in January 2016, and is soliciting submissions via its website.

The Charlie Archive includes a diverse range of materials containing opinions on ethics and satire, religious intolerance, and the political and social role of the media expressed in different languages. More than 1,000 individual items have been collected so far from donors from all over the world. In addition to the donations, librarians in the Western Languages Division at Widener are actively identifying materials to be added to the collection, which is growing every day. Its formation represents an opportunity to preserve unique, ephemeral materials such as social media content and all other types of fleeting print and digital output that otherwise would not be saved for the future.

The response from the people of France has been enthusiastic. Several articles published in well-known French media outlets have resulted in a flood of donations. “The French people are very happy that an American university, and Harvard in particular, is building an archive around the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’/ ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ [translation from French: ‘I am Charlie’/ ‘I am not Charlie’],” said Lidia Uziel, head of the Western Languages Division at Widener Library. “They hope that the archive will contribute to a better understanding in North America of what Charlie Hebdo stood for and the significance of ‘press freedom’ in France.”

The Harvard Crimson reported on the efforts of Nicole A. Mills, the department of Romance Languages and Literatures’ senior preceptor (who was in Paris at the time), to gather as much as she could in the wake of the attacks. Mills teamed up with Virginie E. Greene, chair of Romance Languages and Literatures, to strategize with librarians about how to make these materials available to a wider audience as well as build out the collection. Librarians used approval plans to purchase core acquisitions, giving them more time to search for a variety of unconventional audiovisual and textual objects (such as poems, podcasts, oral history narratives, and songs) that make this archive distinctive. The origins of the project are also discussed through compelling visuals on the Digital Arts and Humanities at Harvard University (DARTH) site, Charlie à Harvard.

The Charlie Archive at the Harvard Library (CAHL) team believes that the archive will grow organically as the one-year anniversary of the attacks approaches. “We also hope that future developments will include curating virtual or real exhibitions in collaboration with our faculty and students, connecting with other archives at national and international levels, and documenting the evolution of the debate on political and religious satire,” Uziel said.

By Kaitlin Buckley, Harvard Library Communications
Article published on October 28, 2015