Virtual Digs: Excavating, Preserving, and Archiving the Web

Virtual Digs: Excavating, Preserving, and Archiving the Web

Purpose: The aim of this project was to study the practices of scholars and archivists as they develop, maintain, and conduct research using Web archives in order to identify ways in which different approaches, across different institutions with different missions influence the outcome of a Web archival program.

The form and content of the Web make up a rich digital historical record that is built by content producers, conserved and preserved by stewards of cultural heritage, and invaluable as evidence of the cultural past for researchers in the social science and humanities. There are many programs in national archives, university libraries, and other institutions around the world developing Web archiving strategies to stabilize the digital historical record. NetLab is one of these institutions.

Different disciplinary perspectives are evident in each program be it lead by a researcher, traditional archivist, or content developer. The approaches taken by each different type of program show varying degrees of success in all the processes of Web archiving, and produce two distinct problems. Firstly, these approaches do not reliably capture the kinds of evidence researchers need. Secondly, collection criteria do not reliably describe what archived objects represent, and so can hamper researchers’ ability to generalize their findings.

The result is discrete preservation efforts and discrete archival collections that vary depending on the motivations guiding the archival strategy (Dougherty, et al 2010). There have been many successes, but none amount to a comprehensive archival strategy and are therefore unsustainable and unscalable (Dougherty & Meyer, in press). Support for experimentation in practices is vital at these early stages as the field is still being defined.

Research questions guiding this study included:

  • What are the common practices developing in Web archiving?
  • How do different communities working in the field develop these practices together or separately?
  • What are the primary infleunces on how practices in Web archiving are developing?

This study is relevant to NetLab for it’s focus on developing practices in Web archiving. NetLab is one of the main locations where researchers and archivists work together to develop new modes and methods for preserving and retrospectively studying the digital historical record. Reflection on the practices developed at NetLab can reveal new avenues for study, new possibilities for Web historical preservation, and new domains of research tool development.

Project team:
Meghan Dougherty, Assistant Professor in Digital Communication, Loyola University, USA