Researcher in focus: Saskia Huc-Hepher – French in London
Saskia is a researcher at the University of Westminster and worked with the UK Web Archive in putting together a special collection of websites. This is her experience:
Curating a special collection
Over the course of the last two years, I have enjoyed periodically immersing myself in the material culture of the French community in London as it is (re)presented immaterially on-line. In a genuinely web-like fashion, a dip into one particular internet space has invariably led me inquisitively onto others, equally enlightening, and equally expressive of the here and now of this minority community, as the one before, and in turn leading to the discovery of yet more on-line microcosms of the French diaspora.
In fact, the website curation exercise has proven to be a rather addictive activity, with “just one more” site, tantalisingly hyperlinked to the one under scrutiny, delaying the often overdue computer shutdown. These meanderings, however, have a specific objective in mind: to create a collection of websites mirroring the physical presence of the French community in London in its manifold forms, be they administrative, institutional, entrepreneurial, gastronomical, cultural or personal.
Although the collection was intended to display a variety of London French on-line discourses and genres, thereby reflecting the multi-layered realities of the French presence on-land, the aim was also that they should come together as a unified whole, given a new sense of thematic coherence through their culturo-diasporic commonality and shared “home” in the Special Collection.
Open UK Web Archive vs Non-Print Legal Deposit
One of the key challenges with attempting to pull together a unified collection has been whether it can be viewed as a whole online. For websites to be published on the Open UK Web Archive website, permission needs to be granted by the website owner. Any website already captured for the Non-print Legal Deposit (from over 3.5 million domains) can be chosen but these can only be viewed within the confines of a Legal Deposit Library.
In theory, this would mean that the Non-print Legal Deposit websites selected for the London French collection would be accessible on-site in one of the official libraries, but – crucially – not available for open-access consultation on-line.
As regards to this collection, therefore, the practical implications of the legislation could have given rise to a fragmented entity, an archive of two halves arbitrarily divorced from one another, one housed in the ‘ivory towers’ of the research elite and the other freely available to all via the Internet: not the coherent whole I had been so keen to create.
What to select?
In addition to aiming to produce a unified corpus, it was my vision that the rationale of the curation methodology should be informed by the “ethnosemiotic” conceptual framework conceived for my overarching London French research. My doctoral work brings together the ideas of two formerly disparate thinkers, namely (and rather fittingly perhaps) those of French ethnographer, Pierre Bourdieu, and Anglophone, Gunther Kress, of the British “school” of social semiotics, whose particular focus is on multimodal meanings.
Consequently, when selecting websites to be included in the collection, or at least earmarked for permission-seeking, it was vital that I took a three-pronged approach, choosing firstly “material” that demonstrated the official on-line presence of the French in London (what Bourdieu might term the “social field” level) and secondly the unofficial, but arguably more telling, grassroots’ representations of the community on the ground (Bourdieusian “Habitus”), as portrayed through individuals' blogs. Thirdly, for my subsequent multimodal analysis of the sites to be effective, it would also be necessary to select sites drawing on a multiplicity of modes, for instance written text, photographic images, sound, colour, layout, etc., which all websites do by default, but which some take to greater depths of complexity than others.
Video and audio not always captured
However, in the same way that the non-print legal deposit legislation challenges the integrity of the collection as a whole, so these theoretical aspirations turned out to be rather more optimistic than I had envisaged, not least because of the technical limitations of the special collections themselves.
Despite the infinite supplies of generosity and patience from the in-house team at the British Library the fact that special collections cannot at present accommodate material from audiovisual sites, such as on-line radio and film channels (even some audio, visual and audiovisual content from standard sites can be lost in the crawling process) is an undeniable shortcoming.
It was a particular frustration when curating this collection, as audiovisual data, often containing tacit manifestations of cultural identity, are increasingly relied upon in the 21st-century digital age and thus of considerable value now and, perhaps more importantly, for future generations.
3D-Wall visualisation tool
Since completion of the inaugural collection, one or two additional positive lessons have been learned, like the “impact” value of the 3D-Wall visualisation tool. When disseminating my curation work at the Institut Français de Londres last March, before a diverse public audience, composed of community members, together with academics, historians, journalists, publishers and students, none of whom were thought to be familiar with the UK Web Archive, making use of the 3D Wall proved to be an effective and tangible way to connect with the uninitiated audience.
It brought the collection to life, transforming it from a potentially dull and faceless list of website names to a vibrant virtual “street” of London French cyberspaces, bringing a new dimension to the term “information superhighway”. It gave the audience a glimpse of the colourful multitude of webpages making up the façades of “London French Street”, to be visited and revisited beyond the confines of my presentation.
Indeed, the appeal of the collection, as displayed through the 3D Wall, generated unanticipated interest among several key players within the institutional and diplomatic bodies of the French community in London, not least the Deputy Consul and the Head of the French Lycée, both of whom expressed a keen desire to become actively involved in the project.
They found the focus on the quality of the everyday lives of the London French community a refreshing change from the media obsession with the quantity of its members, and I am convinced that it was the 3D Wall that enabled the collection to be showcased to its full potential.
To conclude, it can be said that I have found the journey, from idea through curation – with the highs and lows of selections, permission-seeking and harvesting – and ultimately “going live” a rewarding and enlightening process.
It has offered insights into the technical and administrative challenges of attempting to archive the ephemeral world of the on-line so as to preserve and protect it as well as providing rich insights into both the formal and informal representations of ‘Frenchness’ in modern London.
The corpus of websites I have curated aims to play its part in recording the collective identity of this often overlooked minority community, giving it a presence, accessible to all, for generations to come and, as such, contributing prospectively to the collective memory of this diasporic population.
By Saskia Huc-Hepher (University of Westminster)