Politics, Archaeology, and Swiss Cheese: Meghan Dougherty Shares Her Experiences with Web Archiving

MeghanMeghan Dougherty, Assistant Professor in Digital Communication at Loyola University, Chicago, started our interview by warning me that she is the “odd man out” when it comes to web archiving and uses web archives differently than most. I was immediately intrigued!

Meghan’s research agenda is the nature of inquiry and the nature of evidence. All her research is conducted within the framework of questioning methodology; that is, she’s ask questions about how archives are built, how that process influences what is collected, and how that process then influences scientific inquiry.

Roots in Politics

Before closely examining methodology, Meghan spent “hands-on” time starting in the early 2000s working with a research group called, webarchivist.org, co-founded by Kirsten Foot (University of Washington) and Steve Schneider (SUNYIT). The interdisciplinary nature of the work at this organization was evident in the project members, which included two political scientists and two communications scholars, focusing on both qualitative and quantitative analysis. Their big research question was “what is the impact of the Internet on politics?”

Meghan and the rest of the research group recognized that if you are going to look at how the Internet affects politics, then you need to analyze how it changes over time. To do that you need to slow it down, to essentially take snapshots so you can do an analytical comparison.

To achieve this goal, the team worked collaboratively with Internet Archive and Library of Congress to build an election web archive, specifically around U.S. house, senate, presidential, and gubernatorial elections, with a focus on candidate websites.

The Tao of a Website

As they were doing rigorous quantitative content analysis of election websites, the team was also asked to take extensive field notes to document everything they noticed. This, in turn, is how Meghan became curious about studying methodology. Looking at these sites in such detail prompted many questions:

“What exactly has the crawler captured in an archive? What am I looking at? If a website is fluid and moving and constantly updated, then what is this thing we’ve captured? What is the nature of ‘being’ for objects on the web? If I capture a snapshot, am I really capturing anything, or is it just a resemblance of the thing that existed?”

Meghan admits she doesn’t have all of the answers, but she challenges her fellow scholars to ask these difficult questions and not try to neatly tie up their research with a bow by simplifying the analysis. She cautions that before you can gain knowledge about social and behavioral change over time in the digital world, you need to have a sensibility about what it actually means. Without answering that question the research methods are just practice and not actually knowledge building systems.

The Big Secret

Meghan appreciates when archivists and librarians ask her how they can help to support her in her work. What she really needs, she says, is a long-term collaborator, because frankly she doesn’t know what she wants.

“What if I told you that we don’t know what we want to analyze. We really need to think about these things together. The big secret is that we don’t know what we want because we don’t know what we’re dealing with. We are still working through it and we need you [curators and librarians] to help us to think about what an archive is, what we can collect, and how it gets collected. So we can build knowledge together about this collection of evidence.”

In hearing Meghan discuss two small-scale research projects, it was evident that even within her own research portfolio she has very different requirements for web archives.

#AskACurator

Ask a Curator is a once-a-year event, when cultural heritage institutions across the world open up for anyone to engage with their curators via Twitter.

AskACuratorBy analyzing tweets with the #AskACurator hashtag, Meghan is studying how groups of people come together and interact with institutions and how institutions reach out with digital media to connect with their public.

In this example, Meghan stresses that completeness and precision of data are critical. If the archive of tweets for this hashtag are incomplete, then big chunks of really interesting mini-conversations will be missing from Meghan’s data. In addition, missing data will skew her categorizations and must be accounted for.

Taqwacore

1024px-Muslim_Punks_-_Flickr_-_Eye_Steel_Film_(2)
By Eye Steel Film from Canada (Muslim Punks) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org /licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
For another project that is more like an ethnographic study, an online community (Taqwacore) of young people gathered around their faith in Islam, interest in punk music, and political activism.  Meghan is studying a wide variety of print and online materials, including a small press novel (that launched this sub-culture), materials distributed online and handed out at concerts, and materials distributed in person and on the online community pages joined by kids living all over the world.

In this study, the precision and completeness of the evidences doesn’t matter as much because Meghan’s goal is to try to get a general gist of the subculture. She is conducting an ethnographic study, but in the past. So, instead of camping out in the scene in the moment, she is looking back in time at the conversations that they had and trying to understand who they were.

Digging Web Archives

In her research, Meghan has come to use the term web archaeology because she has found that regardless of her area of work, her research has felt like an archaeological dig in which she  examines digital traces of past human behavior to understand her subject. Archaeology, not unlike web archiving, can be both destructive as well as constructive, and similarly archaeologists use very specific, specialized tools to find and uncover delicate remains of something that has been covered or even mostly lost over time.

At this year’s IIPC General Assembly < http://netpreserve.org/general-assembly/2015/overview >), Meghan introduced her web archaeology idea, which is also the topic of her forthcoming book (“Virtual Digs: excavating, archiving, preserving and curating the web” from University of Toronto press), through a tongue-in-cheek video from The Onion about uncovering the ruins of a Friendster civilization.

While the video is intended as satire, the topic raises a real question that we need to address, which is that in a hundred years from now people are going to look back at our communication media, such as Facebook, but what will future scholars be able to dig up?

All about the Holes

In a presentation at IIPC 2011, Barbara Signori, Head of the Department e-Helvetica at Swiss National Library, shared a wonderful analogy about how the holes in our archives are like the holes in Swiss cheese – inevitable. When I asked Meghan to share something that surprised her about her research, she shared a story about the holes.

"Emmentaler". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Emmentaler.jpg#/media/File:Emmentaler.jpg
“Emmentaler”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/ wiki/File:Emmentaler.jpg#/media/File:Emmentaler.jpg

When working with the Library of Congress back in the early 2000s, Meghan’s research group provided a list of political candidates to the Library of Congress staff for crawling. Library of Congress staff created an index of the sites crawled, but they did not create an entry in cases where no websites existed.

Meghan and her fellow researchers were surprised because it seemed obvious to them that you would document the candidates who had websites, as well as those who didn’t. Knowing that a candidate DID NOT have a website in the early 2000s was a big deal, and would have a huge impact on findings! Absence shows us something very interesting about the environment.

Meghan would go so far as to say that a quirk about web archives is that librarians and curators are so focused on the cheese, while researchers find the holes of equal interest.

RosalieLackThis blog post is the third in a series of interviews with researchers to learn about their use of web archives.  

By Rosalie Lack, Product Manager, California Digital Library