Trudy Huskamp Peterson

Certified Archivist

Commentary: Summer is icumen in--and so is climate change

“Sumer is Icumen in,” sang 13th century Brits. Today both summer and climate change are “icumen in.” The UN Secretary-General, alarmed by the World Meteorological Organization’s report on “rising global temperatures and disastrous consequences,” announced a Climate Action Summit to be held in New York on 23 September. He told Heads of State, “Don’t come with a speech, come with a plan.”;; for report see

 The Observer Research Foundation, an Indian nongovernmental “think tank,” analyzed the world’s “capacity for climate justice.” Pointing to “extreme weather events and rising average temperatures,” it said “the socio-economic effects of climate change include the potential mass migration of individuals and communities in the future.” Coastal communities in the U.S. and Bangladesh have already been forced to move (see item in HRWG News 2019-01); nations like the Maldives, with an average elevation of just a meter and a half above sea level, are in danger of needing to move entire populations if the international community continues its “lacklustere global effort to curb human-induced climate change.”

 When people and institutions (commercial, faith-based, educational, medical, non-governmental, governmental, inter-governmental) move, records need to move with them. Archives buildings housing historical records may be located in vulnerable sites and need to be moved. And moving things is hard. Good advance planning is fundamental if the records are to be safely relocated. (For a brief overview of the complexities of preserving records during a planned move, see “Moving Archival Records: Guidelines for Preservation” by Gabriella Albrecht-Kunszeri and Maida H. Loescher, Comma, The International Journal on Archives: 2001/3/4.) But planning assumes we know where records are. And ironically, although archivists are the proponents of knowledge about records, often we don’t. A project in the United States to create a map of archives encountered a significant amount of difficulty—and that did not include mapping the locations of records still in the hands of the creators.

 What we need now--all over the world but especially in locations under threat from climate change—is to map the location of historical archives and current records and to overlay that map with maps of climate change impacts (for example, the map of sea level change ). That would allow us to identify the materials that need to be either relocated within the nation or, as a last resort, stored (digital copy or analog) in an external safe haven. 

 Who can do such mapping? National archival institutions, archival associations, universities—in short, any entity with persons who have the skills and time to do it. Donors such as foundations could be tapped for funds. UNESCO should pay a role in promoting the project. And when a regional or national map is completed, stakeholders should gather to decide how to proceed with far-sighted, informed, realistic preservation measures. As the Secretary-General said, we need to stop talking and come together and plan.