April 9, 2020
TFW you have to archive online culture for the federal government
by Ryan Harrington
We’re all pretty familiar with operations like the Internet Archive–specifically its Wayback Machine–which seeks to preserve online culture, and knowledge, before it disappears.
But whose job is it, if anyone’s, to do that work in an official government capacity?
As Steven Kurutz reports for The New York Times that title belongs to Abbie Grotke, who heads a five person team of “meme lords” at the Library of Congress. As Kurutz writes of the program:
For the past 20 years, a small team of archivists at the Library of Congress has been collecting the web, quietly and dutifully in its way. The initiative was born out of a desire to collect and preserve open-access materials from the web, especially U.S. government content around elections, which makes this the team’s busy season.
But the project has turned into a sweeping catalog of internet culture, defunct blogs, digital chat rooms, web comics, tweets and most other aspects of online life.
Born out of an attempt to document the online runoff of the 2000 presidential election, the program took on a new purpose after September 11, 2001, a moment at which public mourning moved online for the first time. In 2009 the archive started casting a wider net in an attempt to capture the new types of content appearing and evolving overnight in the fecund environment of social media.
It seems like an impossible task, and, well, it is. The archive’s 18 billion records represents a truly tiny corner of the internet.
So how do you decide between logging one page over another? Kurutz explains: “The criteria for selection typically used by print archivists—value to future scholars, uniqueness of the material — still apply to the web archivists, though the high extinction rate of digital matter factors into decision making.” A creator must also agree to being included in the archive, which can complicate matters.
As you can imagine, our meme lords are currently working from home and focusing on archiving the online footprint of the global pandemic and the 2020 election . . . and probably some Tiger King, which has become inseparable from the other two.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.