On the 28th April 2022, Information Professionals across the world met for the Archive of Tomorrow Workshop.
This event was co-hosted by the National Library of Scotland and the Centre for Research Collections, (Edinburgh University), but the collaboration between different institutions does not stop there. Academics and industry professionals from Oxford, Cambridge, the British Library and from outside the UK are also on board… and this project is only just beginning.
Launched in February 2022, Archive of Tomorrow will focus on health (mis)information. Have you ever wondered where some deleted tweets about wearing masks might end up? What about retracted COVID-19 papers? Doesn’t the panic surrounding the use of ibuprofen during the pandemic seem like a distant memory now. It’s important to maintain access to these records and memories for future reflection.
Archive of Tomorrow intends to capture digital records and resources and not always just the public health disinformation itself but the wider discourse, the cultural impact, the reaction to the material as well as the material itself. Indeed, what does qualify as “disinformation” in the first place?
For those of you unable to attend the workshop, here’s a summary of what happened.
April 28th Kicks Off
After an introductory presentation from Joseph Marshall, the Associate Director of Collections Management at the National Library of Scotland, the session was primarily led by Sara Day Thomson, the Digital Archivist at the Centre for Research Collections, UoE.
This half day event consisted of case study presentations; a Q&A session; an in-depth introduction to the early stages of the project; conversations in break out rooms and a keynote speech from Melissa Terras, (Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage at UoE).
It was an ambitious schedule to get through, one that expertly kept to time by all involved without the loss of audience inclusion or time set aside to articulate the sort of complex thoughts that require a moment to articulate fully. There was an overwhelming sense that a stimulating conversation was shared by all, one in which the participants weren’t scared to admit that there are currently more questions than answers. I left with a sense of excitement, my head full of different thoughts and dilemmas to those that I’d had when I logged on of a Friday morning.
Case Studies: No Google of the Past and Plenty of Fish in the Sea
First to present their case study was Gareth Millward who is interested in histories of the World Wide Web and is working on the BUDDAH project with the Institute for Historical Research/the British Library.
As Gareth put it, the internet is just one of the many venues of human activity. It’s also one that is relatively new in human history. Gareth advocated for better methodological training (on Web Archives) amongst the research community. This is in the hope of better understanding some of the best ways that a researcher can search for/sift through online sources. Indeed, if we are engaging with a large range of topics and contradicting sources, (even if just on a surface level), then understanding that browsers, databases and search queries require different skills/rituals compared to, (for example), checking physical, printed books out of the library, is rather important.
That goes for the amateur researcher as well as the professional.
Think of how many different debates or themes you can scroll past on twitter in a matter of seconds. Access to stable resources and how to use them feels more important than ever.
The Archive of Tomorrow project is a clear example of working towards this ongoing shift toward prioritising access to credible sources alongside preservation. As many of us are all too aware, some Archival practices were not necessarily designed with access in mind, and shifts toward objectives such as accessibility and inclusion cannot happen overnight.
The second speaker, Jessica Odgen, presented Go Fish, a conceptual framework for the challenges of engaging with web archives and web research. Jessica described how using the web can sometimes feel like being ‘thrown in the ocean’. Infrastructure is crucial. Unsurprisingly, similar topics from Gareth’s talk came back up immediately – data access constraints; creative intervention; the challenges of navigating a fast-paced, developing sector and how to extract datasets before they disappear.
Where conversation for the two case studies really came alive was the following Q&A session. Having already brought up the topics of access and change, questions surrounding security, trust and verifiability appeared hot on their heels.
The concept of ‘capturing’ versus joining the debates, (and the challenges of actively witnessing) was a fascinating topic. So much so that I would have happy to see the rest of the session spent discussing it, but with so many interesting topics appearing constantly in the lively chat box alongside the speakers, the conversation turned to data mining, AI, internet trolls and I was wrapped up once more.
There is no doubt that misinformation is a current hot topic. Indeed, bringing together this large audience, from different cultures and varied professions, immediately proved that this topic has a far wider reach that just the focus of Archive of Tomorrow (i.e., Health Information/ (dis/mis) Information). This was clearly demonstrated in the word cloud generated by all attendees when asked what their current research was about.
With so many unique and well-informed opinions being shared, I was reminded of how important (and fun) it can be to carve out time to speak to like-minded individuals and professionals from this sector.
Presentation from Web Archivists
As we regrouped after a short mid-session break to replenish teas and coffees, the attention turned to the three web Archivists involved with Archive of Tomorrow. Alice Austin (Edinburgh), Cui Cui (Oxford) and Leontien Talboom (Cambridge).
The audience were encouraged to think once more about how to document, and how to capture. At present, ‘at risk’ material is being prioritised by Archive of Tomorrow, an operating plan which feels quite self-explanatory, but the Archivists have already identified challenges in three major areas from the technical to the legislative and to the more abstract notions such as philosophical obstacles.
The discussion surrounded ethics, algorithms, anonymity and informed consent. Categorisation and labelling proved to be a complex topic as Leontien evidenced with an example rating system of false; misleading; missing context; no evidence or partly false. It is a quick illustration of how the term ‘misinformation’ is really the tip of a vocabulary iceberg.
As the in-depth look into what the Archivists have been pondering concluded, the group moved to conversation prompts in break-out rooms. Each group was able to join at least two members of the Archive of Tomorrow Team. Seeing as time flies when you’re having fun, all too soon it was already one o’clock and guests were directed in a new and fascinating direction once again – the keynote speech.
Keynote from Melissa Terras
Highlights from Melissa’s keynote speech included her thoughts on digitization of the past; how to provide information/access to huge datasets or assets; sustainability; late stage capitalism theories; the rarity of in-perpetuity funding; pre-emptive responses to crisis; institutional red-tape and the threat of cyber-attacks.
Additionally, it was fantastic and humbling to hear more about the SUCHO project, (co-ordinated by Quinn Drombrowski), and the 1300 volunteers from across the Archive and Data Management sector that have come together to help archive Ukrainian cultural heritage sites. You can read more about the project here.
Only the beginning
Melissa Terras left us all with much to ponder in regards to her reflections and opinions on the potential of the web-archiving industry. As Sara Thomson wrapped up and thanked attendees, informational professionals were released from their laptops from all across the world. For those of us in the UK, it was to close up the working week and enjoy the sunshine. For those joining from New Zealand, it was to get going with their evening.
Archive of Tomorrow invited everyone to keep in contact as they are hopeful that progress reports will become a regular occurrence. Anyone with unique and relevant expertise are encouraged to strike up correspondence as soon as possible. It feels like a strong and lengthy dialogue has begun and for the Archive of Tomorrow Team, that their baby is now officially out in the world.
Still want more?
To repeat the conclusion of the three Web Archivists involved in the project, “Tomorrow’s Archive needs you”.
The team recently spoke at a conference in May, providing more detail on the interdisciplinary and multi-institutional work planned – so keep an eye out for more events and updates for Archive of Tomorrow as they are appearing constantly.
For now, we wish Archive of Tomorrow all the best with their plans and project development. VOiCE hopes to bring you further information and updates in the near future.
Written by Lily Mellon