The following is a guest post by Abbie Grotke, Library of Congress Web Archiving Team Lead
A previous post described the End of Term collaborative web archive. Well, when we say collaborative, we mean it. This year, our call for volunteers brought forward Associate Professor Debbie Rabina and her fabulous students at Pratt, who identified social media content to preserve as a part of the project – an area our team was increasingly concerned about, since these accounts don’t show up on official lists of government websites. I recently asked Rabina some questions about their involvement in EOT. For those interested in learning more, she has shared more details on her blog.
Abbie: Tell us about who you are and who was involved.
Debbie: I am associate professor at Pratt Institute, School of Information and Library Science, where I teach the Government Information Sources course. This semester, my class volunteered to help the EOT project by capturing social media websites of the federal government.
The following students all contributed to the project: Laural Angrist, Leo Bellino, Denis Chaves, Megan Fenton, Eloise Flood, Shanta Gee, Lucia Kasiske, Mike Kohler, Emily Lundeen, Julia Marden, Joan, Erin Noto, Lauren Reinhalter, Megan Roberts, Malina Thiede and Rachel Whittmann (who provided the title for this blog).
Abbie: How did you get involved in the EOT project?
Debbie: I saw an announcement on Free Government Information (FGI) that the EOT team was seeking volunteers for the 2012 harvest. The notice briefly described the project and called for volunteers to nominate, through an online form, U.S. Federal government domains to be archived. I emailed the contact person at the Library of Congress and received an immediate and enthusiastic response that brought about this collaboration.
Abbie: How did you decide to tackle the work of identifying social media sites?
Debbie: We used several government directories to systematically search each government agency and check to see if they have social media website. Specifically, we used the A-Z list on USA.gov and the Government Manual on FDsys. After the initial divvying up of the agencies was done, students utilized the finding tools we learned in class to proceed from directory to website to content management system. Students used a combination of searches to make sure they did not miss any site. They search official agency websites to see if they link to their own social websites and followed up by searching with social media by agency names. Finally students ran some Google searches to pick up on sites that may have been missed. Only a small fraction of agencies have no social media presence.
Abbie: How many and what types of social media did you nominate?
Debbie: In all, we nominated approximately 1,500 social media websites. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube led the nominations, and in all, we found government site on about 30 social media sites including Pinterest, GitHub, Foursquare and many more. Leading agencies included the State Department, Dept. of Defense, NASA and the Health and Human Services.
Abbie: What were some of the challenges the students faced?
Debbie: It was often difficult to thoroughly uncover all the social media available from a single agency. Some agencies maintain hundreds for social media sites. For example, the State Department has social media for every US embassy around the world, and it was difficult to nominate all of then. In such cases we choose to be selective rather than comprehensive and nominated sites that are of current interest. In the case of the State Department, the student nominated site from embassies in countries in the news such as Syria and Afghanistan. Other agencies with hundreds of social media sites include the Dept. of Justice and NARA.
Abbie: What are some surprises/interesting stories based on the work the class is doing?
Debbie: Overall students were impressed by the wide use and variety of information they found. As one student said, “The kind of information that each one produces is quite a bit more extensive and somewhat more focused than I realized.”
Students were surprised by the widespread use of social media in government, including by agencies that traditionally avoided interaction with the general public. The Secret Service uses social media extensively for public relations and marketing services, and without a doubt J. Edgar Hoover is turning in his grave.
We were also asked to nominate social media for Senators and Representatives not running for reelection and were surprised that some had no social media site at all.
There were a number of agencies that used image-based social media such as Flickr and Pinterest in interesting ways. The Defense Department Flickrphoto stream has different collections or albums and is searchable through tags, archives or sets.
Abbie: What were the lessons learned from this project?
Debbie: The project helped students understand, and often appreciate, the role of social media in communicating with the public. We discovered that almost every agency searched had a Twitter account. As the work coincided with hurricane Sandy in New York, one student observed: “During the hurricane, I was without power and relied heavily on Twitter for information from the City and Con Edison. After that experience (and after being told by some friendly police officers that it was where they were getting all their information), I understood why the federal government would rely so heavily on Twitter as opposed to other social media outlets.“
Most directly, in terms of supporting the course goals, students learned a lot about the information sources of the federal government and the limitations of social media.
There were also indirect lessons. Many students felt this project made them more aware of the work of government. As one student said “this project inspired me to become a more informed citizen” and some drew broader conclusions about the shifting role of government, from making information available to actively trying to communicate information directly to citizens.
11/30: Typo fixed.