On 20 and 21 June 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 first of two guest blog posts on the micro-internship.
Using library archives for their research is not a novelty for any student or scholar. However, web archives represent a completely new dimension of swiftly evolving research methods – they intend to document what is posted online – a relatively recent form of data collection due to scientific advancements.
For researchers used to traditional archives, the need to store and analyse this data might be not really understandable, however, web archiving, despite being relatively new, is very significant. Firstly, it allows us to store information for generations of future historians and sociologists – contrary to the common perception, many data held on World Wide Web disappears or changes very frequently and rapidly. Secondly, it might be an asset for those pursuing topical research projects in the present – recent technologies (such as prototype SHINE database for historical research) allow us to trace data trends and come to important and fascinating conclusions. Therefore, even if some might underrate web archives, it surely does not diminish their utility to academia.
In the eve of the Brexit referendum, which sparked many debates and discussions in British web space, timely creation of a web collection has proven to be very important – after all, the decision is likely to have long-term consequences for our society, economy, and legal system. Traditionally, individual narratives and civic engagement are set aside when documenting major political decisions. However, a web collection can significantly improve this situation by collecting diverse standpoints expressed in the web sphere. This, in my opinion, perfectly mirrors the ethos of direct democracy where every vote and view counts.
However, important as it is, web archiving comes with a range of practical and ethical obstacles: with huge masses of information being stored online it is very hard to choose what is worthy of being preserved for future generations. Legal restrictions, such as the recent legal deposit legislation, also significantly limit the scope of archivists’ work. During my micro-internship I, along with other interns, tried to overcome these obstacles as much as possible, minimising bias and efficiently using our time resources and server memory. Even in the era of technology, it is the human resources and individual judgment that shape the scope and direction of the collection.
Working on a web collection, especially since the campaigning has increased just before the referendum, was very challenging. However, as interns, we tackled the masses of information by focusing on individual areas of knowledge. Our work on the project was also aided by the guidance provided by our supervisors and discussions on ethical and scientific implications of our research. This was a very rewarding insight into a new area of knowledge, and I am convinced that skills and knowledge acquired and applied by me during the internship will aid me in my future research career.