Impermanence and archives in the information era

I have been thinking a lot lately about the ideas of impermanence, flexibility, retention, and change. Apart from the aesthetics or poetics of impermanence, it does in a very real sense pose problems to a digital record. We have access to more voices, more information, more possibilities than ever before, yet in some ways we have less. As projects and web spaces necessarily evolve, history and documentation can be lost. Sometimes it is refined, but sometimes it is simply replaced.

As I began a discussion today about digital humanities resources, completion, and evolution, I realized data fragility on that level is something to return to at another time. Here, and now, the concern is on a more immediate possibility of a different kind of record loss.

The broader web and digital records pose challenges that archivists have been debating since the beginnings of the Internet—how rapid, how impermanent a space for communications and public discourse. But it is also a place for public access to many kinds of records, and none seem more important right now than government data. In an era of looming uncertainty about transparency and access to information, the preservation activities of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine seem suddenly radical.

Archivists as activists have been a topic of interest for some time, but it is often in relation to hidden histories or underrepresented communities that such discussion develops. It is a strange twist, indeed, to suddenly view government documents archivists and scientific communities as activists. But as the fear that certain politically unpopular documentation—websites, datasets, papers, reports, communications—may start to disappear, a frantic effort to collect and archive seems like just that.

Business Insider explains this in an article articulating concerns about the possibility of climate change data being wiped from both servers and web spaces.

Tech.Co similarly explains three ways scientists are frantically preserving this data.

The University of Toronto Guerrilla Archiving Event: Saving Environmental Data from Trump was initiated by faculty fearing data loss and the tamping down on access to information. The End of Term Presidential Harvest, an initiative of several university and government offices, took on a tone this year that seems more urgent, more immediate, and more important than in the past. As though data—and history—may actually be erased, not just updated or misplaced.

There are undertones not simply of the usual transience and carelessness in the management and access to information, but of malicious intent. This is put forth, forcefully, in the language of the Internet Archive’s See Something, Save Something initiative. Sure, it’s about anyone pitching in to help preserve websites and digital content, but co-opting and playing on the language of the See Something, Say Something campaign to combat terrorism through heightened public awareness is not a subtle message that the willful “disappearance” of information from public spheres is something against which people must remain vigilant.

Further, digging out and tweeting this 1946 educational film on despotism seems an unequivocal declaration that Internet Archive is watching the political and social arenas and guarding access to information for the future of an informed citizenry:

Encyclopedia Britannica Films

Archival activism is alive and more essential than ever, and the task of vigilant preservation and advocating for public spheres just became even more immediate. The message on the part of a great many groups is clear: knowledge isn’t just power, it’s a basic human right.


It’s been awhile…

Funny how time often slips by so quickly. Despite good intentions, I have been neglecting this and my other blog, Writing It All Down, for quite some time–well, to be exact it’s going on close to three years now. That isn’t to say I haven’t been just as engaged with exploring new social media resources, figuring out ways to incorporate them into library and information literacy practices, and design work. To the contrary, I have actually been involved with some very exciting work, but my energy has been focused on the planning, research, articles, presentations, deliverables, and social media use specific to those projects.

Despite my hiatus having dragged on a bit longer than originally anticipated–and let’s face it, there are plenty of well-intentioned but unfinished and abandoned personal and institutional resources out there–I am back with renewed excitement and many things to share.

First, I thought I’d jump in with a micro update on my new activities so I am including some links to recent library projects:

Stereographs of the Panama Canal:

Loading Drill-Holes with Dynamite. Preparatory to Blasting – Near Empire on the Panama Canal Route. Keystone View Company. 1909. Panama Canal Museum Collection, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

In my work with the Panama Canal Museum Collection at the University of Florida, I wrote a grant proposal to digitize a set of important resources from the collection. This grant provided funds to scan (front and back–trust me, scanning the back is important and was often not done in the past), process, enhance metadata, run OCR, create animated gif files (a huge thanks goes to Jimmy Barnett for the creation of these), and create associated educational resources.
Sub-collection of stereographs:

Grant proposal:
Panama and the Canal:
Some of the day-to-day work I perform includes selecting and digitizing, or sending for digitization, important materials from the collection to build the digital library space. Much of this work includes enhancing the metadata and creating original records and finding aids for the archival collection.

Panama and the Canal digital library:

Panama Canal Centennial Celebration:Much of the work I currently do is tied up in a museum-library merger, a part of which is the cultivation and partnership of a dedicated museum community. A huge part of that has been planning for a Panama Canal Centennial Celebration weekend, which was held in late August and included exhibits, lectures, museum family days, and performances.

Photos and information from the museum day:

Just a few of the exhibits:
I curated and installed this exhibit in the Education Library at UF: The Everyday and the Extraordinary: Molas and Ritual Objects of the Kuna People:

My colleagues Lourdes and Amara and I co-curated and installed Panama: Tropical Ecosystem at the Florida Museum of Natural History:
    It's been awhile...It's been awhile... It's been awhile...

I will save other projects for a later time, but having given a capsule review here it’s time to move on! I’m looking forward to connecting and re-connecting to discuss, debate, and share all kinds of new things. Next up: a bit of redesign and redirection.

Thing #1: Online Chat using Meebo

Meebo Basics
I decided to begin my journey, appropriately, at the beginning. Thing #1: Online Chat seems simple enough and would be easy to skip, but since Meebo is specified as the tool of choice I decided to jump in and give it a try. I use other chat services but am only familiar with Meebo because I have heard it mentioned in other circles. “Meebo me” has become a common expression in certain web communities that feature chat rooms, and frankly, whenever a service name transitions to a verb it is probably pretty widespread.

After reviewing the 23 Things suggested resources, including a YouTube video, two wikis, and Wikipedia and Educause articles, I had a pretty good handle on how Meebo extended the functions of instant messaging services. A trip to the website About page, however, gave an even clearer picture of how Meebo can be used to streamline existing social networks, function as a check-in service, and make embedded live chats possible. I was actually quite impressed because even in this current age of diverse applications that combine digital services, this one packs a lot of functionality into a pretty small package. The most obvious convenience feature that I took advantage of was linking several of my current IM clients to my new Meebo account. This feature is a bit like the concept of RSS feeds, in the sense that it allows for the collection of items in one place. Here, instead of collecting web content, I simply collected all my IM contacts into a central place. This is actually more than just an organizational feature, however, since it allows me to take my desktop IM client contacts with me wherever I log in. This is a huge advantage to using a web-based IM service over desktop clients. Also, I realized that even on my own computer I could reduce the number of stand-alone applications running in the background simply by chatting through Meebo; this equates to less clutter and faster performance.

Beyond Basics
Some of the features that really elevate Meebo to the status of a multifunctional tool are the social features. For starters, you can install a minibar in your browser that allows you to check in at websites and chat right from the bottom of the screen. To date, this feature is only available for Firefox and Opera browsers, although a 2010 copyright-dated web page promised Internet Explorer (IE) and Safari browsers would be supported next; it is unclear, however, when exactly “soon” will be. This is significant because to date most people still use IE as a primary browser and thus the check-in feature is limited to only a fraction of the viewers of any particular page. For this to become a great tool for business use (or even a widespread social tool) it will need to be supported in most browsers, and certainly in IE.

The useful part about checking in is that it functions as a rating of sorts. I can check in at sites that I deem exceptionally useful and I am able to view other users that have recently checked in as well. I can also see an overall number of check-ins (5, 23, 14,000, etc.). This could function as a quick way to gauge the popularity of a website; I could also look for whether people with whom I share similar tastes have visited the site. This latter task can be accomplished by viewing the public profile of users I follow, which includes a full list of places where they have checked in. Checking in acts as a quick filtering system that, while certainly not a replacement for browsing, could in a pinch give a quick idea of whether it seems worthwhile to proceed deeper into a website. As for libraries, it is probably worth noting that people are engaging in this type of activity because a library website reputation could be diminished in the eyes of users that believe it should have a greater number of check-ins. Also, since users can check in at both main and sub pages a librarian could use the minibar as a quick website analytics tool. It would not replace all the statistical data generated by a tool like Google Analytics, but it would allow a librarian to quickly see how many people were deeming certain pages worthy of a check-in. This might indicate that content or design on one page was more or less appealing than others, and tweaks could be made if appropriate. 

After installing the minibar, I considered linking to my Facebook and Twitter accounts in order to provide my network of contacts with information about my Meebo activities. I stopped short, however, because I felt that inundating everyone with my web activities in the form of little “Rebecca Fitzsimmons has checked in at www…” messages was less useful in a social context than simply providing links and short comments about worthwhile web content in my posts. Used judiciously, however, I could see this “share” feature as a useful tool for organizations. For example, if a librarian checked in daily at a few well-chosen websites and had that data automatically delivered to a Facebook and Twitter account it would provide a daily update of resources for followers; this would function a little like posting a daily links list, but would be more interactive. The activities could be spread throughout the day and it would have a feeling of spontaneity (whether actual or not) that users tend to relate to–kind of like a trusted friend saying they just found something interesting and had to share it. This builds a level of excitement that, to many users, a “curated” list can’t match. Sharing great web content can also build a more solid following. I tend to pay close attention to the postings of people that have shared great content in the past and I frequently follow their stories and links. This is a sophisticated use of social media tools and one that use of the Meebo sharing feature could enhance.

Last, Meebo allows for several useful features to connect with people through the web. For starters, a Meebo chat box can be embedded in a web site that allows the site manager to chat with visitors in real time. This is a noteworthy feature because the website visitors are not required to have Meebo accounts in order to chat. This eliminates the issue of having to add an individual or organization to an IM list in order to connect, and undoubtedly increases the number of users willing to interact. This is a useful feature for library websites wishing to offer chat reference services. The danger with this feature, however, is that it needs to be reasonably staffed in order to be effective. In fact, if the chat feature is repeatedly closed at reasonable hours a visitor may conclude that the website is abandoned (a huge red flag, just like outdated or unchanging content). For example, I have yet to find an active Meebo chat session open on the 23 Things for Archivists website, regardless of the day and time of my visits; this is actually a little bit annoying since the feature is billed as way to connect with a 23 Things mentor. This is a good example of a well-intentioned incorporation of social media that can’t be maintained and is actually resulting in a negative reaction to the site. In fact, while the “beginning” set of 23 Things is operational, I wonder if the entire “intermediate” list will ever be put in place; given that the chat feature is abandoned, it seems possible that the rest of the site is no longer being updated either. However, if the chat feature of a website can be staffed, at minimum, during the hours a library is open it is a great tool for connecting with users. Also, Meebo offers a group feature that allows a user to create an online room in which to chat with a group of other users.

Information Literacy Instruction Applications
The basic chat features of Meebo would be a good way to keep in touch with students that preferred real-time online interactions to phone calls, face to face meetings, or email–in fact, there are so many good messaging tools out there that email as a communication tool is beginning to feel a little outdated. Chat could be used in the context of both semester-long classes and as a follow-up to one-shot IL sessions. Beyond one-to-one chat sessions, the group chat feature could be used to convene a follow-up, especially after a one-shot session, for students wishing to learn more about information resources.

The embedded chat box would be a great addition to a dedicated course website, but only if it is manned. I feel that logging into a chat session and having it open in the background while doing other things is a pretty standard practice, however, and it would be an easy way to stay connected. In addition to students that might need to visit a course website to view required resources, etc., this could be a good opportunity to connect with librarians or other faculty that might be combing the Internet in search of ILI resources. For classes offered online, a supplemental web site with embedded Meebo chat could offer a more interactive interface than many of the Blackboard and other course management resources seem to be.

In terms of the check-in feature, it could be used to create assignments or extra credit opportunities. The class members could be asked to follow one another on Meebo in order to view each other’s check-in activity. They could be directed to check in to valuable websites at certain intervals, or to accumulate check-ins at leisure over the length of the course. This activity could be tailored to meet the needs of specific courses, such as in IL instruction for a group of engineering freshman it could be required that all the check-in sites are related to that field. A broader approach could involve incorporating general resource sites; the activity could also require students to locate information literacy websites instead of subject-related resources. At the end of the activity a link list could be compiled of the most useful and/or frequently visited resources. By viewing the check-ins of classmates, students may discover useful resources that they would have otherwise missed.

The check-in feature could also be used to track whether students have visited assigned websites, although that type of tracking could be questionable. Instead, it might be better to offer extra credit for visiting certain valuable resources, and assign points based on the student checking in there. In any way it is used, however, the check in feature could help students to see how classmates are finding and evaluating web resources (evaluating in as far as a check-in equating to a judgment that a web site has value). This seems like a great way to build consensus about resources through peer networks–perhaps a more powerful tool than simply handing students a list.  

In short, Meebo is a tool with a lot of possibilities for teaching information literacy, for librarians engaged in public outreach, and for use as a social networking mechanism. I was genuinely surprised by the versatility and by the sleek look of the minibar interface. Meebo truly does offer a good way to manage and streamline IM communications and to connect with other social networks in meaningful ways. Surprisingly, I learned much more than I expected about the new possibilities that IM service can provide far beyond simple chat reference.