THE BRITISH LIBRARY

UK Web Archive blog

19 December 2012

Digital Humanities and the Study of the Web and Web Archives

In early December 2012, I attended a PhD seminar on Digital Humanities and the Study of the Web and Web Archives. It was organised by netLab, a research project for the study of Internet materials affiliated to Centre for Internet Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark.

18 PhD candidates from different parts of the world attended the seminar. They are all at different stages of their research but together represent a new generation of researchers who have embraced the Internet to study society and culture as “it holds the most multifaceted material documenting contemporary social, cultural and political life”, in the words of the organisers. The workshop draws specific attention to Web Archives. This is not surprising as Niels Ole Finneman and Niels Brugger, organisers of the seminar, were not only closely involved in the conception and development of the Danish National Web Archive (NetArchive.dk), but also use web archives as a key source in their own research of the history of the Internet. The purpose of the workshop is two-fold: to explore relevant digital research tools and methods, and to introduce web archives, their characteristics and analytical and methodological consequences to the students as a corpus for research.

Presentations from the students painted a diverse picture of research topics and disciplines. Things that struck me included the already creative use of various digital research methods as well as the (almost indispensable) role of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Adrian Bertoli of the University
of Copenhagen, for example, who studies the online diabetes community, is also investigating how that community relates online to medical professionals, pharmaceutical companies and governments. He produced a hyperlink map to illustrate the interactions between the various actors. Another example is Jacob Ørmen, also of the University of Copenhagen, who investigates the interplay between established media and social media in the coverage of worldwide “media events”, such as the Diamond Jubilee or the 2012 London Olympics, where social media data about the events would be fundamental to the research. 

Over time, users of web archives such as those at the seminar are likely to need more and more the means to collect or assemble individual research corpora.  From our point of view, that of a web archiving service provider whose main users are academic researchers, broad national web archive collections, which often only have limited accessibility for legal and technical reasons, may not meet the dispersed needs of individual researchers, and be in danger of providing a “one-size fits nobody” solution. Archiving and providing access to individual historical web resource is the basic “must-have” of a web archive. To add value beyond that, we should think about collecting and storing those web resources in such a way that it will allow individual researchers to organise and then continually reassemble their own research corpora. We also need to provide the tools for processing and manipulating them using various digital methods.

One of the difficulties in studying web archives highlighted by Niels Brugger is the problematic interoperability between web archives with different scopes and geographical coverage. What we need is a research infrastructure which is capable of supporting the study of the history of the Internet across web archives in different countries, collected using different principles and with content in different languages. There is a funding bid under consideration by the EU to develop this.

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Helen Hockx-Yu, December 2012  

 

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