Month: December 2015

Web Archives and History in the Digital World by Ève Bourbeau-Allard

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Ève Bourbeau-Allard is a first year MSI student specializing in Archives and Records Management. She holds an MA in history from the College of William & Mary.

In an excellent panel of the 2015 Web Archives Conference, Ed Summers, Lead Developer at the Maryland Institute for Technologies and Humanities, asked a provocative and thoughtful question that stayed with me for the remainder of the conference: Is the “Digital” in “Digital Humanities” necessary anymore? In other words, as digital tools and content become such a prominent part of inquiries in the humanities, should we still establish a divide between a traditional field and its digital counterpart?

Summers was discussing his archive of tweets about the events in Ferguson, which constitutes a case in point for the remarks Dr. Ian Milligan later made in his keynote speech. A Professor of History at the University of Waterloo, Dr. Milligan concluded the conference with an exposé on the value of web archives for the crafting of history. It would be “dishonest,” he argued, to write any history of the 1990s and beyond without consideration of the Internet as a central primary source base. To go back to Summers’ project, social media and the Internet played a significant role in the sharing of information and ideas about Ferguson and captured points of views that cannot be ignored.

A panel led by a team from the University of Toronto raised a myriad of issues relating to the archiving of political tweets, including copyright, consent, privacy, access, context, and appropriate metadata. These themes, intersecting with similar challenges archivists already face in their work with analog material, acquire new facets in the online world. Dr. Milligan suggested a re-envisioning and re-valuing of interdisciplinarity in the digital age. Abigail Grotke, from the Library of Congress, also highlighted that web archives do not fit neatly in traditional professional and scholarly divisions. In approaching the vastness of web data, elaborating standards and practices to preserve it, and finding both programmatic and intellectual methods to analyze its content, the combined expertise of librarians, archivists, web designers, computer scientists, historians, and humanists will be necessary. The digital world and the analog world are learning so much from one another that the concept of a digital/analog divide does not capture, for me, the future of the archives and humanities fields.  
In another of the conference’s thought-provoking keynote addresses, Abigail Grotke reflected back on the beginnings of the Library of Congress’ trailblazing web archiving program and admitted that her team didn’t really know what researchers would do with these newly archived sources. Her observation captures one of the aspects of archival work that most stimulates me: acting on the instinct that something is important, that something matters so much that we should preserve it and trust that users will surprise us with creative and meaningful applications. The work conducted by Dr. Milligan, Dr. Jimmy Lin, and Jeremy Wiebe in analyzing and modelling metadata from an archive of political parties’ and interest groups’ web pages to illustrate changing trends in the Canadian political landscape provides an additional example of the potential of web archives. I left the Web Archives Conference inspired by the foresight, creativity, and sense of social purpose inhabiting the speakers and attendees.