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What’s Next for Digital Memory Banks?

2013 May 6
by Sheila

(Post was selected as an Editor’s Choice by Digital Humanities Now, May 9, 2013)

As I watched the news on April 15 and thought about another April tragedy, at Virginia Tech, I wondered if it made sense to create an online collecting site. I have some experience building and managing online collecting sites/digital memory banks, now referred to as crowdsourced collections, at RRCHNM including the April 16 Archive. A few days after the shootings at Virginia Tech, I worked together with former RRCHNM programmer Kris Kelly to help VA Tech launch that site a few days after that tragedy to help them to respond, collect, and make public all of the memories and materials surrounding that dark time.

And then someone asked @CHNM on Twitter, if we were archiving the coverage of the Boston shootings.

As I considered the prospect of starting another unfunded collecting project in response to current events (see: Occupy Archive), I began to question if Internet users would still come to digital memory banks, as we know them. (Since the time I started drafting this post, we’ve learned that Northeastern is working on something.)

In 2013, sharing personal stories, photographs, generating memes, posting videos, is commonplace for many Americans. According to the Pew Internet and American Life survey, sixty-seven percent of Internet users use some type of social networking site.1 People are sharing quite a bit within their own networks, and within networks that have specific terms of service. Will they want to share again in another web space?

Don’t get me wrong, I still see value in the practice of collecting online and in building non-commercial, open resources that are filled with first-person accounts and reactions, and memories to tragic and celebratory events that individual contributors still own and maintain control over use. As Internet users access many different platforms and use the Web in more ways, people are much more comfortable sharing online with their own social networks. There are many places to react and emote immediately, as a result, there is much more noise on the Web. Finding a digital collecting site seems much more challenging. The question remains, how can we best save those reactions for historians and other researchers to access in the future? Conversely, should we try to save all of those reactions?

Brief Background on Digital Memory Banks as I Know Them

In the late 1990s, digital memory banking started as an outgrowth of oral history practices, and as a way to identify potential subjects to interview. The Blackout History Project was RRCHNM’s first online collecting project (http://blackout.gmu.edu) that invited visitors to complete an on-line survey and asked contributors to provide a phone number so that a longer oral history interview could be conducted on the Northeastern blackouts in 1965 and 1977. RRCHNM pushed forward to experiment with digital collecting models including the Exploring and Collecting History Online (ECHO) project in 2001 (http://echo.gmu.edu ), followed by the much larger, September 11th Digital Archive (http://911digitalarchive.org), and the more regional Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB http://hurricanearchive.org). Other entities were trying this as well, such as the BBC’s WW2 People’s War project beginning in 2003 that collected over 47,000 through the web. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar2 Using a simple web form that asked individuals to tell their story in a large open text box, we collected different types of reflections and reactions together with a small amount of user metadata. Locating these digital items was important as well. For the 9/11 project we asked for zip codes, saved in a field in the database. By HDMB, we asked contributors to plot their submissions on a Google map, making place a primary organizing principle.

These projects influenced the development of Omeka and its Contribution plugin that lets any institution or individual quickly launch an online collecting site to respond to tragedy or to commemorate an event, and to do many other types of crowdsourcing of content by asking for contributions from a community of users.

Sharing and Re-Sharing

If viewed as a completely digital pursuit, “digital memory banking,” is a very difficult one. We found in building HDMB, and others since that any digital collecting project exists in an in-between place that Mills Kelly and I termed, “Web 1.5.” because, “for all the potentialities of online collecting and democratizing the past, remember that any project still requires a great deal of analog hands-on history work.”3.

In 2005, we planned to save the born-digital responses soon after an event using some web scraping tools. We cobbled together a Flickr uploader that allowed us to search through and pull in photos that with CC licenses. Without a feed importer for blog posts, I contacted bloggers to get permission to copy their posts, and copy and pasted their text as items into the backend.

To collect stories, reflections, and media files from those directly effected, we needed a simple web contribution process, and then active, on-the-ground outreach team members pointing people to the site’s URL, ensuring the trustworthiness of the site, and offering a personal connection to an impersonal web space.

When volunteers at RRCHNM built the Occupy Archive, http://occupyarchive.org, in October 2011, for example, we wanted to save what seemed to be a very digital movement, and hoped occupiers would help us to build this archive. We knew that wifi was common in the encampments and that communication among Occupy members occurred on Facebook sites, WordPress blogs, and Twitter. Our friends at Emory collected tweets to save for a time when we might be able to republish them. Twitter’s TOS had changed that fall preventing us from republishing tweets without obtaining permissions from each user. TOS has changed again since then so it is a little easier to do so now. Patrick Murray-John whipped up a Flickr feed importer that grabbed CC’d images and their metadata tagged with “ows” and “occupy” and imported those into the Omeka-drive site. Others snapshotted Facebook pages and webpages of Occupy groups using Zotero and we imported that material into the digital archive.

We even attracted attention of the national media who were interested in learning more about our efforts, and we talked about our work very soon after launching the site. Many people viewed the site, but only a few contributed. Our biggest challenge was not having someone to devote 30 hours a week to outreach to all of these groups, asking for their stories.

For such a widely-distributed, international, movement, creating a digital memory bank was the best method to collect and save the history of the occupiers. The time we spent was still worth our efforts, and there is still an opportunity for this to grow in a different way.

What is Next?

In 2013, there are many more tools that can scrape web content for us and better developed APIs, from some services, that allow for querying and accessing content. To save and/or republish in a digital memory bank, however, we still must pay close attention to obtaining proper permissions from users and services when and if necessary. And how do we best capture the context of social media conversations, so that when those conversations are mined later, the researcher understands how those were generated? Our discussion groups at the Archiving Social Media unconference exemplify some of the challenges we still face in collecting, preserving, and honoring users’ rights related to social media content.4

Or, what if we don’t worry about trying to pull in some materials and focus on making it easier for users to push materials themselves? Perhaps something like PressIt or Evernote-like bookmarklets that send what the user chooses to be shared with a digital collecting site. Having better means to push our own content out of commercial networks helps in this pursuit and for individuals to archive their own materials (which works in opposition to how most SNS want you behave).

To collect stories directly from contributors in 2013, we draw upon similar method, but need to make it easier to share from our mobiles. Responsive web design helps these sites to be easily viewed and simple web forms to be used on mobile devices. If file uploads are included, this can be accomplished with an mobile app, like how you would use History Pin, Flickr, Instagram, et al. The challenge is how to allow users to “send to” or “share” a photo, video, or voice memo using native functionality on a mobile with a digital collections site that itself is not the app.

To increase the visibility of these user-generated collections and to increase participation, I look to successful examples of distributed collecting events. University of Texas-El Paso arranged for collecting days and scanned sources from Braceros and their families and interviewed former Braceros for the Bracero History Archive, (http://braceroarchive.org). These events also taught participants how to add additional materials and stories from home through the web form. The History Harvest project http://historyharvest.unl.edu/) is engaging in a similar method to save local history from small towns in the Midwest, by traveling to towns and photographing and recording objects and stories collected. (The only missing piece is that they do not have a public contribution form.)

In the end, digital memory banks remain an in-between digital space. In the early 00’s asking individuals to contribute a personal story via a web form was not comfortable or easy. Now, that process is naturalized as we share, discuss, make, and save own thoughts and products in many different digital spaces. To save this activity and content in an open and accessible archive still requires some old-fashioned face-to-face connections. We have known at RRCHNM for years that you need a good outreach plan for any digital project, especially so for an online collecting project. That fact hasn’t changed, even if the ways that we interact on the Web and in our daily lives has.

Where do you think digital memory banks are heading next?

  1. Maeve Duggan, Joanna Brenner, “The Demographics of Social Media Users–2012,” Pew Internet and American Life Project, Feb 14, 2013, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Social-media-users/The-State-of-Social-Media-Users.aspx. For more detailed information about who is online see the Pew’s Internet Use Demographics tables, http://www.pewinternet.org/Trend-Data-%28Adults%29/Whos-Online.aspx. []
  2. See the very good history of online collecting in Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/collecting/. []
  3. See, Why Collecting Online is Web 1.5, http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=47 []
  4. Archiving Social Media Unconference, October 1, 2010, George Mason University: http://archivingsocialmedia.org. []
2 Responses leave one →
  1. Amalia S. Levi permalink
    May 13, 2013

    Hi Sheila,

    Thanks for the thought-provoking piece on digital memory. I also appreciate the resources and the background on the development on digital memory banks.

    I guess my issue is: Having to ask permission for each tweet or Facebook post or blog post one wants to include in a digital memory bank is completely counterproductive to creating any kind of meaningful project!
    If tweets can be manipulated by the millions in social science, why can’t we claim publicly available social media content for history?

    Thanks!

    • Sheila permalink*
      May 13, 2013

      I agree, and that question will continue to be answered differently as each commercial service changes and amends their terms of service and APIs.

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