UK Web Archive blog

09 November 2020

A tale of two web archives: challenges of engaging web archival infrastructures for research

By Jessica Ogden, University of Bristol and Emily Maemura, University of Toronto

Web archives are quickly becoming a key source for studying the historical Web, with many recent projects and publications demonstrating the scholarly opportunities presented by national web archives, in particular. At the same time, research in and on national web archives presents a number of challenges for scholars - where a ‘sociotechnical gap’ (Ackerman 2000) can be observed between the needs of researchers and the affordances of web archives themselves.

Diagram illustrating a web archive conceptual framework

In an effort to better understand the barriers to web archival use in research, our recent paper at the Engaging with Web Archives conference shares the results of a collaborative project which compares and contrasts our experiences of using two national web archives: the UK Web Archive and the Netarchive in Denmark. In 2018, Jessica undertook a three-month research placement with the British Library looking at the challenges and opportunities of using the UKWA for social science research. Around the same time, Emily also spent three months at the Danish National Web Archive, Netarchive, in collaboration with the Royal Library and the University of Aarhus in Denmark. 

Based on our own interactions with these web archives, and interviews with staff and curators, alongside observations of web archiving activities, this paper proposes a conceptual framework that outlines the earliest stages of research alignment and engagement with national web archives. The concepts developed in the paper (orientating, auditing and constructing) provide an avenue for discussing the entanglement of researchers, curators and collections in the research process. In discussion, we make a number of observations regarding the challenges of this form of digital research - including how researchers must unpick the complex constraints of different web archives - and suggest possible ways that existing curatorial infrastructure (tools, people and curatorial knowledge and expertise) could be leveraged to better facilitate researcher engagement in future.  

To learn more about our findings, check out the recording of our EWA 2020 presentation.

Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Canada Graduate Scholarship 767-2015-2217 and Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement. Additional funding was provided by a UKRI/Economic and Social Research Council, National Centre for Research Methods placement fellowship and research funds by the University of Southampton. The authors also gratefully acknowledge the generosity and support provided by staff and researchers at the UKWA, the British Library, the Royal Library and the NetLab at Aarhus University.