We’re all Bona Fide

Why preserving cultural heritage on the web/social media should be an inclusive and community centered effort

Participants in the Digital Blackness in the Archive symposium held December 11th-12th, 2017 at Ferguson Public Library in Ferguson, MO and at Washington University in St. Louis. #BlackDigArchive

On December 26, 2017 the Library of Congress announced it would no longer be collecting all tweets, moving away from an agreement originally signed with Twitter in 2010. Since much of the writing about the library’s decision has not included the voices of archivists, I thought it would be important to weigh in. The Library of Congress’ new policy is to now be selective in their decision making about what tweets to collect, stating in the white paper released with the announcement: “tweets collected and archived will be thematic and event-based, including events such as elections, or themes of ongoing national interest, e.g. public policy.” This is what archivists call appraisal by the way, a core activity in our profession, and it’s what should have been happening all along with the Twitter archive.

But let’s set that aside for a moment. This was the right decision by the Library of Congress and I am fine with it for several reasons. First, archiving Twitter and social media in general, should be a broad community effort. The problem is literally too big for one institution to handle. Ed Summers, who worked on the original infrastructure to bring the Twitter collection to the Library of Congress, wrote about some of the policy, technical, and management issues that hindered the development of the collection from the beginning. Additionally there is a large community of people interested in figuring out how to best archive Twitter and other social media platforms. Why not focus more attention and resources on leveraging their energy and creativity to help develop accessible tools and ethical practices that can be widely adopted to do this sort of work. An example of this growing community can be seen in the Documenting the Now Slack channel which currently has over 350 members who have an interest in social media archiving. Archiving social media content should be a shared professional and community responsibility because it not only stretches our resources further, but it can also help to ensure that the records we end up creating are more representative of marginalized people.

The second reason I am ok with the Library of Congress’ decision is because a lack of staff diversity coupled with this myth of neutrality in the library/archives profession, can negatively impact the collections we build in terms of inclusiveness. A federal institution where the diversity of the staff who would be making decisions about the collection and one with a long history of issues around diversity and discrimination, probably shouldn’t be the sole entity we rely on for preserving the records of a social media platform like Twitter, and especially because its users are largely by Black and Hispanic people. This is important because we know that people of color and other marginalized communities, have influenced how the platform is used. They’ve helped to define it’s impact on our culture in several ways including how we understand activism in this moment, cultural expression, and surveillance of people of color online. Several scholars have written about the use of social media platforms by African Americans. Check out André Brock, Meredith Clark, Deen Freelon, Sarah Florini, Catherine Knight Steele, and Sarah Jackson. You can also check out the talks and the tweets from the recently held Digital Blackness in the Archive symposium where several scholars of black history and culture and cultural heritage professionals described their work with social media.

What does the Library of Congress Twitter collection look like, even after they bring appraisal into their process, if the people designing the systems and building the collection don’t understand the impact of the platform on and for communities of color, and how to translate that knowledge to inform their collection development practices? The lives of marginalized people are more visible and more vulnerable on the web and social media, making it even more important that these communities be involved in how their histories are preserved. This is especially vital at a time when we’ve seen all kinds of cultural moments by and about people of color amplified, appropriated, or surveilled on platforms like Twitter. These include instances of black cultural expression or moments such as #oscarssowhite, #blackwomenatwork, #ferguson, #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #blackgirlmagic, #blackjoy, #sandrabland, #drawingwhileblack, among others.

If their work is not considered, will scholars of black digital culture be able to support their research on social media using the the Library of Congress’ Twitter collection if it doesn’t prioritize these topics? Some of which are not viewed by huge segments of our population to have any national interest of significance.

There are other reasons to be ok with this decision by the Library of Congress. The library is an extremely politicized institution and it’s not independent from meddling by Congress. After all, it is their library. What impact might that relationship have on the Twitter collection as far as who gets access and how the collection grows, especially in our current political climate where social media has a heightened relevance? One just has to look at the drama around the use of the “illegal alien” subject heading a few years ago to understand that there are people outside of library’s walls who can significantly influence the decisions made there.

Additionally, the library cannot collect and preserve Twitter or any other social media for all communities. We are in a moment when marginalized people are increasingly attempting to document themselves. It would be useful to spend some time figuring out how to build tools and provide support for community-based archives, activists groups, or native people who want to document their own communities on social media and the web based on their own values. We should continue to acknowledge that different communities might want to preserve different parts of Twitter and other social media platforms and the library may not be the right place to lead that work, which is why an inclusive community effort is necessary. For example, the collecting priorities around social media for the Dusable Museum, Transgender Archive, South Asian American Digital Archive, Shorefront Legacy Center, San Bernardino County Museum, or the Sherman Indian School Museum might be different from the Library of Congress’ priorities. It’s important to consider how the needs of these types of spaces might be impacted if the library is the only trusted space where platforms like Twitter are archived, especially when you consider the intention behind Twitter’s decision to restrict access only to “bona fide” researchers in the original agreement it signed with the library. If the collection was ever made open and that policy was followed, how would it have been implemented and what impact would those decisions have on the scholarship produced from the collection?

There are of course several projects trying to address issues of inclusivity around social media and web archiving. Their efforts include developing tools to broaden the scope of who can do the collecting and also fostering communities of practice where issues such as ethics and accessibility are prioritized. Projects like Documenting the Now, Webrecorder, and Social Feed Manager are all attempting to address how we can better collect and preserve our shared digital cultural heritage. These efforts are helping to create a more inclusive and thoughtful practice that I believe can eventually lead to more representative collections of social media and web archives. It might be useful for the Library of Congress to explore how some of these tools could support public access to the tweets that it does intend to keep. I think these projects would be eager to support that work.

If you’re interested in contributing to the conversation social media archiving and how ethical practices should influence that work, please join the growing community on the Documenting the Now project Slack.