On 14 and 15 March eight Oxford University students took part in a web archiving micro-internship at the Weston Library’s Centre for Digital Scholarship. Working with the UK Legal Deposit Web Archive, they contributed to the curation of a special collection of websites on the UK European Referendum. This is the second of two guest blog posts on the micro-internship.
The most central aspect of modern life is now the proliferation of digital technology. Since the 1990s, it has become a central mode of communication which is often taken for granted. At the start of this micro-internship, we were introduced to the concept of the digital ‘black hole’, a term used to describe the irrevocable loss of this information. Unlike physical correspondence and materials–the letters, writs, and manuscripts of earlier centuries–so much of what we write is fragile and evanescent. To stem the loss of this digital history, we were shown how the Bodleian Libraries and other legal deposit libraries use domain crawls to capture online content at pre-determined intervals using the W3ACT tool. This then preserves a screen grab of the website on the Internet Archive, namely the waybackmachine, before the website is updated.
The right to a copy of electronic and other non-print publications, such as e-journals and CD-ROMs by legal deposit libraries only came into existence on 6th April 2013. This meant that libraries were able to create an archive of all websites with domains based in the United Kingdom. The recent ‘right to be forgotten’ law adopted by the EU is a signal of the fact that the legal status of digital archives is nevertheless becoming increasingly complicated, particularly when compiling archives of events receiving international commentary, like the upcoming EU referendum. Each of us focused on a different aspect of the EU referendum, reflecting our individual interests, ranging from national newspapers and student newspapers to the blogs of Scottish MSPs, Welsh AMs, and MEPs, and the blogs of solicitors and legal firms’ websites offering advice to businesses and refugees in the event of a ‘Brexit’. One of the trickier views to archive was that of British expats living abroad. In this situation, unless the site can be proven to be based in the UK, we would have to write to the owner of the domain to request permission to archive the website. In a situation where permission was given but the person expressing those views subsequently wished to erase this history under the ‘right to be forgotten’ law adopted by the EU, should the UK have voted to leave the EU, this would leave the archived material in a tricky legal position. We learned during the internship that this would most likely result in the relevant archived material being deleted. However, this is exactly what the archive was set up to prevent and so the tension between the right to privacy and freedom of information on a public platform presents considerable problems to the aim of web archives to be fully comprehensive, aggravated further by the omission of websites with pay walls.
After finding this material and ensuring it was covered by the legal deposit law, it was necessary to classify the site accurately, identifying the main language, and providing titles and descriptions. For newspaper articles, this was relatively straightforward, but for Welsh and Irish-language publications produced by political parties, languages which I am studying at Jesus college, this was more complicated as the only languages available to select from were German or English–a testament to the nascent stage of the web archive’s development. In addition, classifying material was very much up to our own individual discretion and the descriptions to our own style. To complicate things further, the order in which searched-for material should be presented raises further issues, which we discussed at the end of the micro-internship. Namely whether results should be arranged by ‘most popular’, by date of publication, or any other criterion. The discussions and practical experience offered by this internship gave us an opportunity to help address the legal and administrative challenges facing web archivists.