The Library and Twitter: An FAQ

(UPDATE: Here’s a January 2013 status report on our work with the Twitter archives.)

Twitter’s gift (link is PDF) to the Library of Congress of its entire archive of public tweets, announced two weeks ago today, sure has stoked the public’s interest.  (Also included as addenda to the previous link were Twitter’s current and previous terms of service.)

I’ve been working in journalism and public relations for nearly 20 years, and of all the stories with which I was personally involved, this one has beaten the rest by a mile. Thousands of hits on Google News.  Countless blog posts from around the world.  Media interest from virtually every national newspaper and broadcast outlet (which continues even two weeks later), and numerous local outlets.  And websites as diverse as The Drudge Report, The Huffington Post, and even Perez Hilton.

And of course, a lively discussion, to say the least, within the Twitterverse itself.  On the day of the announcement, I set up a Twitterfall that looked more like Niagara than a trickle.  (A definite highlight of my life was having been retweeted by Alyssa Milano.)

Given all of that interest, we wanted to put out an FAQ.  Most if not all of these answers have been published on our site and elsewhere, but we thought they should be collected in a single place.  These may be updated as appropriate:

Why is it important to preserve the Twitter archive?

Twitter is part of the historical record of communication, news reporting, and social trends – all of which complement the Library’s existing cultural heritage collections.  It is a direct record of important events such as the 2008 U.S. presidential election or the “Green Revolution” in Iran.  It  also serves as a news feed with minute-by-minute headlines from major news sources such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.  At the same time, it is a platform for citizen journalism with many significant events being first reported by eyewitnesses.

The Library of Congress collections include items such as the very first telegram ever sent, by telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, oral histories from veterans and ordinary citizens, and many other firsthand accounts of history.  These collections and others have left behind glimpses of the lives of ordinary people, thereby enriching knowledge of the context of public events recorded in government documents and newspapers.  Individually tweets might seem insignificant, but viewed in the aggregate, they can be a resource for future generations to understand life in the 21st century.

The Library did not pay for the archive; rather, it was a gift from Twitter.

What is in the Archive?

Twitter has been a public and open communications platform since its beginning. Twitter is donating an archive of what it determines to be public.  Private account information and deleted tweets will not be part of the archive. Linked information such as pictures and websites is not part of the archive, and the Library has no plans to collect the linked sites. There will be at least a six-month window between the original date of a tweet and its date of availability for research use.

What does the Library plan to do with the archive?

First and foremost, the Library is interested in preserving access to the archive for the long term.  In addition to looking at preservation issues, the Library will be working with academic research communities to explore issues related to researcher access.  The Twitter collection will serve as a helpful case study as we develop policies for research use of our digital archives. Tools and processes for researcher access will be developed from interaction with researchers as well as from the Library’s ongoing experience with serving collections and protecting privacy and rights.

The Library is not Twitter and will not try to reproduce its functionality.  We are interested in offering collections of tweets that are complementary to some of the Library’s digital collections: for example, the National Elections Web Archive or the Supreme Court Nominations Web Archive. We will make an announcement when the collection is available for research use.

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