New Online: Collecting Web Comics and Culture

This post first appeared in the September–October issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The issue is titled “Comics: An American History!” and is available in its entirety online.

Two new online collections capture contemporary culture as it is consumed, via the web.

An issue of Sticky Comics by Christiann MacAuley.

The millions of items in Library of Congress collections chronicle human creativity in all its forms, from Bach scores to baseball sheet music, Shakespeare’s First Folio to dime novels and comic books.

To those, add born-digital comics, emoji, memes and GIFs. In June, the Library launched two new collections—the Webcomics Web Archive and the Web Cultures Web Archive—designed to document contemporary online culture.

The webcomics archive preserves a sampling of comics created specifically for the web, supplementing the Library’s holdings in comic books, graphic novels and original comic art. The collection focuses on long-running and award-winning comics as well as creators and subjects—such as women, minority or LGBTQ artists and characters—not traditionally represented in mainstream comics.

Sticky Comics, for example, explores women’s experiences in life (“low points in dieting”), the workplace (eight types of people in the office kitchen) and the digital age: The main character, distracted by Facebook and Instagram, forgets to call 911 and lets a house burn down. Dinosaur Comics, meanwhile, examines issues through conversation between two talking dinosaurs who ponder, say, Bitcoin or the arguments for the existence of Batman.

An issue of Dinosaur Comics by Ryan North.

“The Web Archiving team is thrilled to finally get this collection online and available for research use. While we’ve been archiving a variety of types of websites since 2000, comics were added to the Library’s web-archiving program in 2014,” information-technology specialist Abigail Grotke said. “This presented new challenges as these were more visually focused than sites included in prior collections.”

The other new online collection seeks to document and preserve a new kind of folklore: the GIFs, memes, emoji and other expressions created and shared online each day among millions of people around the world.

The Web Cultures Web Archive collects a representative sample of websites—Urban Dictionary, Internet Meme Database and Emojipedia, among others—that might help people in the future better understand today’s digital world.

Emoji list by platform.

Emojipedia decodes the meanings of the pictorial characters used to punctuate digital text. Replygif.net archives the animated images employed in digital culture by users who might prefer to express exasperation via a GIF of Bill Murray rolling his eyes.

“The proliferation of smart phones, tablets and wireless internet connection has positioned networked communication as a space where people increasingly develop and share folklore,” said Elizabeth Peterson, director of the American Folklife Center, which maintains the archive. “This effort will help scholars 25 and 100 years from now have a fuller picture of the culture and life of people today.”

Urban Dictionary, a crowd-sourced dictionary of slang, might help folks decades down the road puzzling over contemporary terms such as “icicle fingers” (when your fingers are too cold to text) or “desk rage” (peak employee stress level that leads to outbursts of foul language).

Some things, of course, are timeless, digital or not.

Cute Overload, a widely read blog preserved in the archive, once carried out a mission of searching the internet for “only the finest in cute imagery”—such as a polar bear cub playing with toys or a puppy swinging in a hammock.

Even a century from now, who wouldn’t want to see that?

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