FEATURE STORY

Mining the World Bank Archives’ 70 Years of History

October 21, 2013

A boy leads a man suffering from river blindness in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), 1974. 

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A growing digital record is easing access to a vast collection of development history and knowledge.
  • An eArchives project aims to digitize information recently declassified under the Bank’s 2010 Access to Information policy and make it freely available online.
  • About 300 archival folders have gone online from President Robert McNamara’s term — 1968 to 1981 — as part of a pilot project.

In the early 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon to see children leading blind people in the villages of the Volta river basin.

River blindness, a parasitic infection spread through the bite of a black fly, had infected a million people among a population of 10 million in seven African countries, and had left an estimated 70,000 blind or with impaired vision.

Witnessing the devastation firsthand in 1972, then-World Bank President Robert McNamara helped launch a 30-year international partnership to fight the disease — eventually involving 26 donors, 30 African countries, a major pharmaceutical firm, 12 major non-governmental organizations, as well as tens of thousands of local communities.

By 2002, the river blindness program had protected 75 million people from the disease and eliminated it as a major health problem.

Records, tributes and stories about the river blindness effort — the Bank’s first major health initiative — are part of a small but growing digital record from the World Bank’s vast archives, housed in a massive underground limestone mine six hours’ drive from Washington. 

Covering 70 years of development history, the archival holdings contain enough paper, video, and photos to fill up three football fields. But until recently, it was seen by few eyes.

A new effort to digitize the most sought-after and significant records could change that, says Chief Archivist Elisa Liberatori Prati.

“There isn’t another repository of development information like the archives of the Bank,” says Liberatori Prati.

“We want to democratize the access to the Archives by bringing the power of technology to open them up to whoever is interested. By doing so, we hope to multiply the impact of the experience from the past.”

A young eArchives project aims to digitize information recently declassified under the Bank’s 2010 Access to Information policy and make it freely available online. The project got a boost last month with the arrival of a scholar funded by the Library of Congress’ National Digital Stewardship Residency program.

Digitization of records isn’t new at the World Bank Archives – more than 200,000 operational records and reports dating from 1946 are online and visited by 100,000-plus users a month.

The eArchives project will digitize other previously inaccessible materials that reveal the “beauty of the detail of the work” of thousands of Bank experts and officials and their partners in the development community, says Liberatori Prati.

They include such records as former presidents’ handwritten notes, internal reports about women in development, and materials that no longer exist in countries whose development history they recorded. So far, some 450 boxes of archival records have been declassified.

Open Quotes

We want to democratize the access to the Archives by bringing the power of technology to open them up to whoever is interested. By doing so, we hope to multiply the impact of the experience from the past. Close Quotes

Elisa Liberatori Prati
Chief Archivist, World Bank Group

They are preserved in the limestone mine at 68 degrees Fahrenheit — the ideal storage temperature for paper records — the “second safest place in the United States after Fort Knox,” says Liberatori Prati.

In the last three years, people have come from all over the world to view these records in the Archives’ secure reading room in Washington. But those who made the trip represent but a small fraction of requests for historical records.

With limited resources, the Archives is working to digitize the most-requested records and make them available online.

About 300 archival folders have gone online from President Robert McNamara’s term — 1968 to 1981 — as part of a pilot project. They include an audio recording and booklet of McNamara’s 1973 speech in Nairobi, in which he coined the term “absolute poverty.”

Eventually, the Archives hopes to move digitized holdings to a specialized online repository to further open up the collection.

“History still lives in the archives,” says Liberatori Prati. “You find the debate, you find the controversies, you find what people believed, what they were fighting for.  You give life again to generations of work.”

“These are records that are useful for decision-making, for not reinventing the wheel, and for accountability. We want historians to know, economists to know, development practitioners to know and come and work with us.”