Reflections on “Archiving Social Media”

Last Friday I attended the “Archiving Social Media” meeting, organized by the University of Mary Washington (UMW) and the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University. I won’t attempt to summarize the content of the discussions–you can read the notes from the breakout sessions for yourself, linked in the comments section on the page for each theme. You can also read over the tweets–#asome. A white paper summarizing the results of the meeting is also in the works. (Note that the meeting was kept deliberately small to encourage conversations and that until the last day or two was an “invitation only” affair.)

Rather, I’d like to share some observations and questions for my audience of archivist readers. First, I was quite disconcerted to find that I was one of a very few archivists present. The attendees were almost all historians or other academics working in the digital humanities, although there was also a large contingent from the Library of Congress. I don’t mean this as a criticism of the organizers, who I’m sure did their best to invite more archivists, but rather as something to keep in mind when reading the notes. My first recommendation for following up on this meeting would be to plan a similar one with enough lead time and funding so that the archivists who are most actively engaged in research on preservation of social media can attend. (More about that later.)

I think the general trend of the conversation would come as no surprise to most archivists who’ve been engaged in discussions about the preservation of electronic records over the years. Many of the same issues surfaced–the argument to “save everything” because “we can and storage is cheap,” as well as the recognition of the need for preservation considerations to be addressed early in the life cycle. I was in the group discussing “institutions,” specifically exploring who is responsible for preserving social media products. Many in the group were optimistic about the role of individual scholars in preserving the social media records that are relevant to their research, which would then be donated to an appropriate institution for permanent preservation. I’m somewhat skeptical about the viability of this option, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong. I still think the majority of preservation work in this area will come from the traditional custodians of cultural memory–archives, libraries and museums, who will collect and preserve the materials that fall within their missions. This will leave the same kind of gaps it always has. There will be materials that are only preserved outside our formal collecting institutions or not preserved at all, just as there have been in the past. (The model of LOC taking all of Twitter notwithstanding.) Are my archivist roots showing? Not everything is going to survive. And for those materials that do survive we will rarely be able to place those materials completely within their original context. Maybe it’s tempting to think that because of improvements in technology we should be able to do a better job of preserving the records created by every person, organization or government, but call me cynical, I don’t think the social structures that support preservation have changed that much.

What I took away from the meeting was the need for archivists to communicate with interested scholars, like those at the meeting, about our body of professional knowledge, which I believe gives the perspective necessary to approach this topic. To me, social media products look like just another category of electronic records. We need to define what characteristics of each different type of record need to be preserved for the record to be considered authentic and reliable. Then we need to produce, publicize and update best practices for how to preserve those records. We need forums for sharing information on tools and techniques. And we need a sense of urgency about the need to begin collecting social media records right away. There were many voices at this meeting pointing out the fragility of these kinds of materials. But how many archives are collecting them?

Preservation of social media is not my specialization. So, my question for you, readers, is how much of this is already being done? Who is working in this area? What reports and standards are already available? And, if not much is yet being done, what’s the proper forum for initiating such work? Where should this discussion take place in our profession?

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