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Getting serious about collecting and preserving digital culture

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Early web archiving meant printing and saving. AFC has more than 12 linear inches of manuscripts related to internet scam letters.
Early web archiving meant printing and saving. AFC has more than 12 linear inches of manuscripts related to internet scam letters.

The American Folklife Center has a small but respectable collection of 419 Scam emails. It even includes a parody scam letter from February 2003 claiming to be authored by none other than George W. Bush, who asks recipients to transfer 10 to 25 percent of their yearly incomes to aid in removing the Iraqi president from power so that the U.S. can acquire the country’s petroleum assets. It starts:

I am George Walker Bush, son of the former president of the United States of America George Herbert Walker Bush, and currently serving as president of the United states of America. This letter might surprise you because we have not met neither in person nor by correspondence. I came to know of you in my search for a reliable and reputable person to handle a very confidential business transaction, which involves the transfer of a huge sum of money to an account requiring maximum confidence.”

Spearheaded by AFC reference librarian Judith Gray, this scam letters collection has grown to more than a linear foot and reflects the staff’s long-standing recognition of the need to preserve folk expression on the web. Yet, only recently have options for preserving web content grown beyond merely making printing outs. Today, a more elegant solution is at hand thanks to the Library’s Web Archiving Program, and together we’re piloting a project to archive websites that document Internet cultures. Given the vastness of the task at hand, we solicited help from a range of folklore practitioners and scholars who study internet folklore by asking them to nominate sites that would constitute the inaugural collection.

The Beginnings of AFC’s Web Archive

The best way to get a grip on what collections documenting internet culture and folklore would look like is to take a quick look at the initial list of sites we are collecting, or hoping to collect. By no means is this intended to be exhaustive, it’s really just a first step at collecting a slice of some of the records of digital culture.

So far we’ve received permission to crawl the following sites: 

  • Boing Boing
    Started as a Zine in 1988, Boing Boing has played and continues to play an important role in shaping and communicating digital culture.
  • Equestria Daily
    Equestria Daily is a major fan site for bronies, fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic from outside the shows original target demographic of young girls. The rather large and active communities of Bronies on the web have become a focus of a range of ethnographic work, for example.
  • Fark
    Originally launched in 1999, Fark is a community website that allows members to comment on a daily batch of news articles and other items from various websites. Links are submitted by Fark members (collectively referred to as “Farkers”).
  • Instructables
    Instructables is a website specializing in user-created and uploaded do-it-yourself projects, which other users can comment on and rate for quality.
  • Know Your Meme
    KnowYourMeme is a site dedicated to documenting Internet phenomena: viral videos, image macros, catchphrases, web celebs and more.
  • Something Awful
    Something Awful includes blog entries, forums, feature articles, digitally edited pictures, and humorous media reviews.
  •  YTMND
    An initialism for “You’re the Man Now, Dog”, this site is an online community centered on the creation of hosted memetic web pages (known within the community as YTMNDs or sites).

We are awaiting permission clearance from five other sites that relate to cosplay, user-made artwork, fan fiction, urban legends and vernacular language.

A parody scam letter in the collection.
A parody scam letter in the collection.

We ended up excluding a few nominated sites that are hosted at academic institutions. The Library has operated under the assumption that academic institutions have a plan for preserving the content on their sites. So those sites are not considered at risk. Given our limited resources for web archiving, we decided to forego crawling those sites at this time.

For those who think the vernacular nature and vastness of the web makes taking on a project like this seem foolhardy, that’s what we thought, too. Indeed, it is a challenge to put meaningful boundaries around a project like this. We are grateful for the help of our co-curators and look forward to their continued participation as we seek to advance this work.

Also, it is worth note that our early assumption that web archiving is already covered by those who have been long at work in this area wasn’t accurate. “Often the question is asked, if the Internet Archive is crawling the web, why are others archiving at all? The answer is simple: No one institution can collect an archival replica of the whole web at the frequency and depth needed to reflect the true evolution of society, government, and culture online,” wrote Abbie Grotke, the web archiving team leader at The Library of Congress.

Going Further with Born Digital Folklore

With the proliferation of smart phones, tablets, and wireless Internet connections, network communication is increasingly where people share folklore. AFC is committed to ensuring that its collections reflect contemporary traditional culture on the web and beyond.

Toward that end, we are excited to participate in this year’s CURATEcamp unconference scheduled alongside Digital Preservation 2014. The July 24 camp in Washington, DC will focus on collecting and preserving the World Wide Web as cultural platform.  It will be “co-unchaired” by Trevor Owens, Digital Archivist at The Library of Congress (he played a significant role in planning and curating this project); Amanda Brennan, Internet Librarian formerly of Know Your Meme currently at Tumblr (Know your Meme is in the inaugural collection); Trevor Blank, a folklorist who studies online culture (he was one of the co-curators of the project).

We are excited about this and we hope you are, too. To that end, consider posting your thoughts on what sites you think should be preserved to document cultures of the web. Ideally, share your thoughts on what about those sites makes them significant enough that they should be a part of the national collection. In the same vein, if you would like to participate in the CURATEcamp Digital Culture unconference sign up while seats are still open.

Comments (2)

  1. Who says silly can’t be serious?

    We are, after all, the land of Woody Guthrie, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein and Yankee Doodle.

  2. Buzzfeed should definitely be considered. It highlights not only contemporary memes and other Internet phenomena but it features the latest cultural trends both present and nostalgic.

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