Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Future of the Past of the Web

'The Future of the Past of the Web' was a one-day international conference organised by the DPC, JISC and the British Library to discuss new trends in web archiving. There were two interesting issues that came up that reveal some of the challenges associated with creating digital content in a cultural heritage environment. First, recent work by the Oxford Internet Institute, presented by Eric Meyer, has observed a "persistent" gap between web archives and researchers (that is, the target user group); to paraphrase a bit, this means that few are really using web archives for social science or historical research, as one would expect. Second, Martha Anderson, Director of Program Management at the Digital Preservation Program, Library of Congress, compared web pages to books - less and less information is being held within web pages and accessed as such, but rather apps and social media aggregate the information we want, and researchers are more interested in underlying data trends, rather than exploring individual web pages.

As discussed in a previous post, there is an increasing switch towards local knowledge. To document an event these days, it's unlikely that you'll rely exclusively on a stand-alone web page, but rather aggregate comment from disparate groups of eye witnesses, from people who are interested in finer and finer aspects of experience. This content is obviously more challenging to get hold of, but EU-funded initiatives such as BlogForever and Arcomem are in the early stages of trying. Having been in operation for around ten years, the field of web archiving is starting to expand technologically and socially, away from simply collecting web pages and storing them in a box, a model that basically follows analogue principles. Yet there is a sense that web archiving and its associated technologies could have advanced much further had they been embraced by the cultural heritage community. Further, there is a large question mark over how even to engage with target user groups.

While there are fundamental differences between a web archive and other forms of digital content served up by the cultural heritage sector, a resistance to change and disengagement with the supposed user community appear to be recurring factors. It is these gaps that I would like to identify and address within my research.

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