MARAC Fall 2017 recap, Session 12: Web archiving democracy

Session 12: Web archiving democracy.
Chair: Mary Haberle, Archive-It
Speakers: Dory Bower, U.S. Government Publishing Publishing Office
Roger Christman, Library of Virginia
Megan Craynon, Maryland State Archives
Ian Milligan, University of Waterloo
Nich Worby, University of Toronto
Ben Goldman, Pennsylvania State University

Mary Haberle began this session with a brief overview of the need for archiving the web as well as some of the fundamental challenges in doing so. Haberle led with the fact that countries who elect officials are more likely to have transparent policymaking, but the citizenry must be active and engaged for this to work. Web archiving is essential to keep people informed because a typical webpage lasts 90 days before changing and/or disappearing. Material shared on social media is typically gone in less than a year.

Dory Bower shared with us the difficulties that the Federal Depository Library program faces in getting organizations to understand that websites are documents. We learned that websites are ephemeral in nature and we need to actively seek to preserve their various updates and changes. Because of the abundance of web materials, we should work together to avoid duplication.

Megan Craynon opened with the Washington Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” to convey the importance of the Maryland State Archives efforts at documenting websites from the state level down to the municipalities throughout Maryland. This helps us capture public access to information and it also allows records to be available earlier than if they waited for formal deposits. Web archives are important supplements to other government records.

Ben Goldman discussed how his work in archiving fracking throughout Pennsylvania has taught him that web archiving democracy forces us to focus on the people. PSU worked to document both the people and the fracking industry. In doing so, he witnessed the industry change their language over time to obtain a more favorable opinion from the public. Goldman learned that outreach is needed to build effective web archives so that people will use them; we need to promote our web archives in the same way we promote our physical collections.

Roger Christman addressed the need to prevent gaps in the archival record by documenting the effects that outside money (e.g. “fake news” sites, grassroots fundraising, and the American Legislative Exchange Council) has on our government and our election processes. Unfortunately, outside money creates content on the web that is not easy to capture due to constant changes, and we often don’t know of its existence until it is too late. Government organizations need to be careful not to be perceived as favoring one side over another while web archiving. Social media raises even more concerns in this documentation.

Nich Worby discussed how a lot of provincial and municipality web archiving is missing in Canada. However, thanks to a change in Canadian copyright law, universities can now archive government websites for educational purposes. Because this information is considered government documentation, FOIA requests are sometimes needed to obtain what was once freely available on the web. Still, one major challenge for them is defining what constitutes a government document in the context of the web.

Ian Milligan pointed out the need to make web archives more easily accessible and searchable. Due to the overabundance of electronic records and the nature of the web, it is typically easier for a researcher to browse through paper files than the Wayback Machine. Groups such as Web Archives for Historical Research and the Archives Unleashed Project are working to make web content more accessible and easily searchable. Currently, many tools are available but are difficult to use because they are command line based.

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