THE BRITISH LIBRARY

UK Web Archive blog

3 posts from August 2017

16 August 2017

If Websites Could Talk (again)

By Hedley Sutton, Team Leader, Asian & African studies Reference Services

Here we are again, eavesdropping on a conversation among UK domain websites as to which one has the best claim to be recognized as the most extraordinary…

“Happy to start the ball rolling,” said the British Fantasy Society. “Clue in the name, you know.”

“Ditto,” added the Ghost Club.

“Indeed,” came the response. “However … how shall I put this? … don’t you think we need a site that’s a bit more … well, intellectual?” said the National Brain Appeal.

“Couldn’t agree more,” chipped in the Register of Accredited Metallic Phosphide Standards in the United Kingdom.

“Come off it,” chortled the Pork Pie Appreciation Society. “That would rule out lots of sites straightaway. Nothing very intellectual about us!”

“Too right,” muttered London Skeptics in the Pub.

Before things became heated the British Button Society. made a suggestion. “Perhaps we could ask the Witchcraft & Human Rights Information Network  to cast a spell to find out the strangest site?”

The silence that followed was broken by Campaign Bootcamp. “Come on – look lively, you ‘orrible lot! Hup-two-three, hup-two-three!”

“Sorry,” said the Leg Ulcer Forum. “I can’t, I’ll have to sit down. I’ll just have a quiet chat with the Society of Master Shoe Repairers. Preferably out of earshot of the Society for Old Age Rational Suicide.”

“Let’s not get morbid,” said Dream It Believe It Achieve It helpfully. “It’s all in the mind. You can do it if you really try.”

There was a pause. “What about two sites applying jointly?” suggested the Anglo Nubian Goat Society. “I’m sure we could come to some sort of agreement with the English Goat Breeders Association.”

“Perhaps you could even hook up with the Animal Interfaith Alliance,” mused the World Carrot Museum.

“Boo!” yelled the British Association of Skin Camouflage suddenly. “Did I fool you? I thought I would come disguised as the Chopsticks Club.

“Be quiet!” yelled the Mouth That Roars even louder. “We must come to a decision, and soon. We’ve wasted enough time as it is.”

The minutes of the meeting show that, almost inevitably, the site that was eventually chosen was … the Brilliant Club.

If there is a UK based website you think we should collect, suggest it here.

09 August 2017

The Proper Serious Work of Preserving Digital Comics

Jen Aggleton is a PhD candidate in Education at the University of Cambridge, and is completing a work placement at the British Library on the subject of digital comics. 

If you are a digital comics creator, publisher, or reader, we would love to hear from you. We’d like to know more about the digital comics that you create, find out links to add to our Web Archive collection, and find examples of comic apps that we could collect. Please email suggestions to Jennifer.Aggleton@BL.uk. For this initial stage of the project, we will be accepting suggestions until the end of August 2017.

I definitely didn’t apply for a three month placement at the British Library just to have an excuse to read comics every day. Having a number of research interests outside of my PhD topic of illustrated novels (including comics and library studies), I am always excited when I find opportunities which allow me to explore these strands a little more. So when I saw that the British Library were looking for PhD placement students to work in the area of 21st century British comics, I jumped at the chance.

Having convinced my supervisor that I wouldn’t just be reading comics all day but would actually be doing proper serious work, I temporarily put aside my PhD and came to London to read lots and lots of digital comics (for the purpose of proper serious work). And that’s when I quickly realised that I was already reading comics every day.

The reason I hadn’t noticed was because I hadn’t specifically picked up a printed comic or gone to a dedicated webcomic site every day (many days, sure, but not every day). I was however reading comics every day on Facebook, slipped in alongside dubiously targeted ads and cat videos. It occurred to me that lots of other people, even those who may not think of themselves as comics readers, were probably doing the same.

Forweb2-slytherinpic
(McGovern, E. My Life As A Background Slytherin, https://www.facebook.com/backgroundslytherin/photos/a.287354904946325.1073741827.287347468280402/338452443169904/?type=3&theater Reproduced with kind permission of Emily McGovern.)

This is because the ways in which we interact with comics have been vastly expanded by digital technology. Comics are now produced and circulated through a number of different platforms, including apps, websites and social media, allowing them to reach further than their traditional audience. These platforms have made digital comics simultaneously both more and less accessible than their print equivalents; many webcomics are available for free online, which means readers no longer have to pay between £8 and £25 for a graphic novel, but does require them to have already paid for a computer/tablet/smartphone and internet connection (or have access to one at their local library, provided their local library wasn’t a victim of austerity measures).

Alongside access to reading comics, access to publishing has also changed. Anyone with access to a computer and internet connection can now publish a comic online. This has opened up comics production to many whose voices may not have often been heard in mainstream print comics, including writers and characters of colour, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, those with disabilities, and creators who simply cannot give up the stability of full-time employment to commit the time needed to chase their dream of being a comics creator. The result is a vibrant array of digital comics, enormously varying in form and having a significant social and cultural impact.

But digital comics are also far more fragile than their print companions, and this is where the proper serious work part of my placement comes in. Comics apps are frequently removed from app stores as new platform updates come in. Digital files become corrupted, or become obsolete as the technology used to host them is updated and replaced. Websites are taken down, leaving no trace (all those dire warnings that the internet is forever are not exactly true. For more details about the need for digital preservation, see an earlier post to this blog). So in order to make sure that all the fantastic work happening in digital comics now is still available for future generations (which in British Library terms could mean ten years down the line, or five hundred years down the line), we need to find ways to preserve what is being created.

One method of doing this is to establish a dedicated webcomics archive. The British Library already has a UK Web Archive, due to the extension of legal deposit in 2013 to include the collection of non-print items. I am currently working on setting up a special collection of UK webcomics within that archive. This has involved writing collections guidelines covering what will (and won’t) be included in the collection, which had me wrestling with the thorny problem of what exactly a digital comic is (comics scholars will know that nobody can agree on what a print comic is, so you can imagine the fun involved in trying to incorporate digital elements such as audio and video into the mix as well). It has also involved building the collection through web harvesting, tracking down webcomics for inclusion in the collection, and providing metadata (information about the collection item) for cataloguing purposes (this last task may happen to require reading lots of comics).

Alongside this, I am looking into ways that digital comics apps might be preserved, which is very proper serious work indeed. Not only are there many different versions of the same app, depending on what operating system you are using, but many apps are reliant not only on the software of the platform they are running on, but sometimes the hardware as well, with some apps integrating functions such as the camera of a tablet into their design. Simply downloading apps will provide you with lots of digital files that you won’t be able to open in a few years’ time (or possibly even a few months’ time, with the current pace of technology). This is not a problem that can be solved in the duration of a three month placement (or, frankly, given my total lack of technical knowledge, by me at all). What I can do, however, is find people who do have technical knowledge and ask them what they think. Preserving digital comics is a complicated and ongoing process, and it is a great experience to be in at the early stages of exploration.

And you can be involved in this fun experience too! If you are a digital comics creator, publisher, or reader, we would love to hear from you. We’d like to know more about the digital comics that you create, find out links to add to our Web Archive collection, and find examples of comic apps that we could collect. Please email suggestions to Jennifer.Aggleton@BL.uk. For this initial stage of the project, we will be accepting suggestions until the end of August 2017. In that time, we are particularly keen to receive web addresses for UK published webcomics, so that I can continue to build the web archive, and do the proper serious work of reading lots and lots of comics.

07 August 2017

The 2016 EU Referendum Debate

 


LEAFLET

Pictured: Official EU referendum campaign leaflets – Remain (left hand side) and Leave (right hand side). Do you see any similarities?

My name is Alexandra Bulat and I am a PhD student at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. My research is on attitudes towards EU migrants in the UK, based on fieldwork in Stratford (London) and Clacton-on-Sea.

The 2016 EU referendum campaign represents an important period when attitudes towards the topical ‘uncontrolled EU migration’ were shaped, expressed, and passionately debated. In this context, websites and social media played a key role in presenting the public with arguments about EU migrants and migration. Can we find the same campaign information today by browsing web resources? Some campaign websites have since been amended, renamed, redesigned, or simply disappeared from the visible online space. Here is where the UK Web Archive can help researchers like me who analyse particular events in history, such as the EU referendum.

In June 2017, I started a three month placement with the British Library Contemporary British Collections. The project is titled Researching the EU Referendum through Web Archive and Leaflet Collections. I use the EU referendum web archive and 177 digitised leaflets and pamphlets (available in the LSE Digital Library ‘Brexit’ collection) to answer the following research question: Who is speaking about EU migration and how?

In the first stage of research, I created a spread sheet for the leaflets and pamphlets, recording basic information such as title, organisation, and their position in the campaign. I also included all the content about freedom of movement, migrants, refugees, and closely linked topics. Overall, almost two thirds of the materials supported remaining in the EU, with only five categorised as ‘neutral’ and the rest arguing for leaving the EU. Just under half of these materials mentioned immigration, with more ‘Leave’ than ‘Remain’ sources. About a fourth of the items were clearly targeted to a specific region or town/city, the most common being London, Cambridge and various locations in Wales.

The second stage involved using the UK Web Archive to search for the websites and social media (in particular, Twitter handles) that were explicitly mentioned in the printed material, or that I could easily infer from the information available. Only six leaflets did not mention an online presence and I was unable to find it any evidence of it. However, the large majority of them had website(s) or social media mentioned in the printed publication. I ended up with a list of 49 main websites and social media presence for over half of them. Almost all those websites were archived, so I could see the exact information which had been live during the referendum. Most websites were available in the UK Web Archive, but some archived copies were only found in the Internet Archive. For comparison purposes, I looked at the latest record each website had before June 23rd. For some this was as close as 22 June, offering a real snapshot of the debate right before the polling day, but others were not archived in 2016 at all (but had earlier records).

There is a variety of websites, from the official Vote Leave (www.voteleavetakecontrol.org) and Britain Stronger In Europe (www.strongerin.co.uk), to less familiar campaigns such as University for Europe (www.universitiesforeurope.com) and The Eurosceptic (www.eurosceptic.org.uk). A majority of these websites are in the Library’s ‘EU Referendum’ special collection, which brings together a range of websites such as blogs, opinion polls, interest groups, news, political parties, research centres and think thanks, social media and Government sources, who all wrote about the Referendum. Nevertheless, some smaller campaigns, or websites that are not necessarily dedicated to the Referendum but included some content about it, were not included the special collection.

One example of the importance of archiving the web is www.labourinforbritain.org.uk . Although this is a rather well known campaign (which even has its own Wikipedia page, where this website is quoted), its website is not ‘live’ anymore.

Screen capture 1: ‘Live website’, 1 August 2017

SORRY

The UK Web Archive only started making records of it in 2017, but it had already displayed an error message. However, the Internet Archive has snapshots from before it disappeared from the live web. The Labour In campaign is an important resource for my research – it is one amongst a small number of sources making a more positive case about EU migration, which is essential to compare and contrast to the less favourable arguments made by other campaigners. Although the main Labour Party website had a tab about the Referendum, it did not include the same content as this campaign website, entirely dedicated to referendum issues.

Screen capture 2: ‘Archived website’, 22 June 2016

IMMIGRATION

In addition to finding information that is not ‘live’ anymore, the web archive helps to contextualise the leaflets and complement the information provided in those printed campaign materials. The Bruges Group webpage is a good example in this sense. The digitised leaflet collection has four different leaflets from them. However, a comprehensive list of viewable leaflets is available on the archived website. In this case, the information was still on the live web when I last checked (apart from a slight change in formatting). However, no one knows for how long it will remain there, particularly after ‘Brexit’ is not anymore in the public debate.

By helping recover seemingly ‘lost’ information, complementing other datasets, contextualising the research and possibly many other roles, web archives are valuable resources that researchers should be encouraged to explore in greater depth. To mark the end of my PhD placement, I am helping to put together a roundtable discussion at the British Library with EU referendum collection curators and academics from a number of institutions, to create the space for conversation around future use of web archives in academic research and beyond.

Alexandra Bulat, August 2017

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