Web 25: Histories from 25 years of the World Wide Web

Niels Brügger (editor)
Web 25. Histories from the First 25 Years of the World Wide Web
New York, Peter Lang, 2017. Paperback at £36.

It’s always a great pleasure to have sight of a book in which some of your own work appears. In the case of Web 25, it contains my short cultural history of the first 20 years of world Web archiving. But the book as a whole is full of intriguing other things, some of which I draw out here.

One of the most interesting areas (for me) in the emerging field of Web history is that of the early intellectual history of the Web: the modes in which people told stories about how the Web came into being and what it was good for (and the dangers it held). It was just this kind of research that my own paper at the ReSAW conference in June was aiming at ( ‘Utopia, dystopia and Christian ethics in the history of the Web‘ (podcast)), and there are several points of contact with two papers here: Marguerite Barry on the ways in which the Web entered general public conversation; Simone Natale and Paolo Bory on understanding the early history of the Web as one instance of a ‘biography of media’.

There are also several intriguing chapters that examine the concrete histories of particular parts of the Web: Sybil Nolan on one particular news site (the Australian The Age Online); Elisabetta Locatelli on the genre of the blog in an Italian context; Michel Hockx on the development of the Chinese Web; Jean Marie Deken on one particular organisation, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre. Here we have case studies at every level of magnification: organisations, particular kinds of content, whole nations.

There is also methodological reflection: from Matthew S. Weber (‘The challenges of 25 years of data: an agenda for Web-based research’); Federico Nanni and Anwesha Chakraborty on integrating archived Web materials with other sources including interviews to build diachronic accounts of the evolution of a particular site; Anne Helmond on the importance of embedded third-party code as a means of understanding what she terms ‘historical website ecology’. It’s a potentially very fruitful approach that complements the kind of analysis of link relations between sites that I’ve attempted here and here. It also connects with Niels Brügger’s own chapter, a short history of the hyperlink.

Finally, in the same section as my own there are chapters on the experience of creating and managing Web archives themselves, both in national library contexts (Paul Koerbin on Australia, and Ditte Laursen and Per Møldrup-Dalum on Denmark) and Camille Paloque-Berges on Usenet as an archive that falls outside the more established patterns into which Web archiving has fallen.

All in all, the volume is another part of an exciting upswing in interest in the idea of Web history, represented by The Web as History, the new journal Internet Histories and the forthcoming Sage Handbook to Web History.

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The silence of the archive. A review

[A review that appeared first in the LSE Review of Books.]

David Thomas, Simon Fowler and Valerie Johnson.
The Silence of the Archive.
Facet, 2017.

In the past two to three decades, the archival profession has been caught between two currents of cultural and technological change: simultaneous, largely unrelated, both apparently inexorable. Largely confined to the academy, but resonating beyond it, has been a radical scepticism about the stability of meaning in language resulting from the postmodern turn in historical thinking. Coupled with this epistemological scepticism has been a hermeneutic of suspicion of the power relations that are embedded in the creation, description and accessing of archival records. This has been bound up with the emergence of a wider politics of identity, and the assertion of the experience of marginalised groups as being equally worthy of documentation and study as those more ‘official’ voices that have traditionally dominated archives.

At much the same time, the transition from paper to digital in records management and archiving has presented the profession with challenges of exceptional scale and complexity, as laid out by David Thomas, former Director of Technology at the National Archives of the UK, in Chapter Three of this fascinating book. This transformation has fundamentally changed the ways in which live records are created and managed by organisations, with the significant added risk of mis-description as frontline staff are pressed into becoming their own archivists, and also of discontinuity in working IT systems such that data is lost or rendered uninterpretable. As these records pass to the archive, new and intractable challenges of scale come into play as archivists must select content for archiving and appraise it, presenting the difficulty of finding effective ways of describing these records and designing access systems that meet the needs of users.

For most working historians, much of the ferment of the discussion that these changes have prompted amongst archivists and theorists has been largely obscure; most of the literature that the authors (all three of them present or former TNA staff) synthesise here is to be found in the journals of the archival profession, into which historians rarely look. For those scholars whose only contact with archives is in the search room, this book will likely come as something of a revelation of just how far-ranging and radical some of that thought has been in the last ten years, and should be widely read for that reason alone. One might expect it also to find its way onto reading lists for introductory courses in the methods of archival research. It is therefore a matter for regret that the book, even in paperback form, is priced at a level that makes it unlikely that it will find its way into many private collections.

As a whole, the book has two major themes, one of which is acknowledged by both the title and the back cover, and another, equally if not more important, which is everywhere implied but rarely stated (to which this review returns below). Firstly, the theme of the title: the silence of the archive. The authors, along with Anne J. Gilliland in the foreword, identify an image that has formed in the public imaginary of the archive as a comprehensive repository of all known facts about the past. Scholars will differ on how potent and pervasive that image is, but the authors set out to show firstly that archives are neither comprehensive in this sense nor purely objective, even supposing such a state were possible.

Chapter One, by Simon Fowler, deals with ‘enforced silences’, whereby organisations conceal, amend or destroy records before they reach the archive, or where (as an unintended consequence of freedom of information legislation) records are never created as business is transacted informally. All manner of decisions are then made as the archivist selects which records should be preserved, appraises those records that are selected and removes material in the process, and then catalogues records in ways that bring certain aspects of a record to the fore while effectively silencing other voices. In addition, neither the transient quality of everyday life nor the lives of the majority of the population often come under the gaze of the state and so leave few traces (Chapter Six by Valerie Johnson is instructive on the ways in which marginalised communities may be intentionally brought into view and their stories documented as a result.)

Professional historians are of course accustomed to engaging critically with the ways in which their archival sources come into being, but they will benefit nonetheless from this wide-ranging survey of the particular issues. In several places, however, a strangely critical note is struck: a suppressed frustration with the users of archives and their apparent inability to understand the issues. In Chapter Two, ‘Inappropriate Expectations’, Fowler quotes the historian Nicholas Rodger on the distaste of staff of the Public Record Office when asked to provide subject indexes: to do so ‘would imply that the Office had a duty to provide something the public wanted, instead of the public having a duty to shift for itself and leave the archivists in peace’ (54).

While this whole book is a testament to how far those kinds of attitudes have been eclipsed, glimpses occasionally show through. Archivists, we are told on page 45, are familiar with being ‘bombarded’ with questions which cannot be answered, by users who ‘struggle to understand’ the issues (60). Johnson writes (after Lisa Jardine) of the ‘longing of historians and researchers to find that golden key which will unlock the secret they are investigating’, which in some cases leads to false assumptions about evidence that does not in fact exist and (at the extreme) to the sorts of conspiracy theorising, fictionalisation and fabrication that Thomas explores in Chapter Five. Whilst some researchers can and do cross this line, the experience of this reviewer, at least, is that such cases are rare, and are perhaps overstressed here. Most historians are able to control their longing. That said, archive users, for their part, have no doubt been guilty of failing to appreciate the role of the archivist as something more than a mere fetcher and carrier of files as Johnson notes (146): there is work to do perhaps on both sides of the relationship.

To a certain extent, the book is let down by its title and chapter headings, since the focus on what is not possible obscures a more hopeful and arguably more important thread which appears explicitly only on page 141. Johnson asks where the responsibility for the documentation of society lies, and answers: ‘it has been the implicit argument of this book that we are all responsible, whether as creators of records or professional curators of those papers, or as users, researchers, historians and informed citizens.’ At this point, this reviewer must declare an interest, as one working to facilitate precisely this better working between archives and the users of their digital services.

Nonetheless, The Silence of the Archive is throughout a call for a new relationship between archivists, the ‘archival subjects’ (those whose lives are documented) and those who use the archived record. Johnson writes of the process whereby those archival subjects are engaged in the process of creating the archive of their existence, thus becoming co-creators with the archivist (149-53). Thomas points out the acute need in a digital archive for close engagement with end users, both in the selection of material and in the design of the interfaces that make those records first discoverable and then usable (70-72). It is a shame, then, that this call for change – necessary and urgent – is somewhat muted here; indeed, in general, the authors have a tendency to quote and expound the work of others rather than elaborate an argument, and could have been bolder. However, it is a case that should be widely heard. Records managers, archivists, historians and other users of archives should read this timely and important book.

New article: On digital contemporary history

A little article of mine has just appeared in the Danish historical journal Temp, based on a lecture given in Copenhagen to the Danish Assocation for Research in Contemporary History in January 2016.

It suggests that there has been a relative lack of digitally enabled historical research on the recent past, when compared to earlier periods of history. It explores why this might be the case, focussing in particular on both the obstacles and some missing drivers to mass digitisation of primary sources for the 20th century. It suggests that the situation is likely to change, and relatively soon, as a result of the increasing availability of sources that were born digital, and of Web archives in particular. The article ends with some reflections on several shifts in method and approach, which that changed situation is likely to entail.

By the kind permission of the editor, I make it available here.

Title:  Digital contemporary history: sources, tools, methods, issues
Details: Temp: Tidsskrift for historie, 14 (2017), 30-38.
Download the PDF

Religion, law and national identity in the archived Web: new article

I’m delighted to say that an article of mine has appeared this week in a new collection of essays, edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder: The Web as History (London: UCL Press, 2017, ISBN: 9781911307563).

My article is ‘Religious discourse in the archived web: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008’ (pp. 190-203). It examines the controversy over a public lecture given by the archbishop on the interaction of civil and religious law, but from a new angle: the imprint the controversy left in the archive of the UK web. It makes particular use of British Library data documenting the link structure of the .uk country code top level domain for the period 1996-2010.

The whole thing is available as an Open Access PDF, but here’s my conclusion.

It is a brave historian who attempts to interpret the very recent past, as opposed to merely documenting it. As with most aspects of very recent history, the full significance of Rowan Williams’ lecture about sharia law will only become clear as the passage of time grants the historian a sufficiently long perspective from which to view it. An exhaustive qualitative examination of both the published record, and memoirs and private papers that are as yet inaccessible (not least the papers of the archbishop himself, not due to be released until 2038) will be needed to place the episode in its fullest context. Without these, we cannot yet know how changes in patterns of communication that are observable in the archived web were motivated, or how opinions expressed online related to broader patterns of social and intellectual change. However, even if it is difficult to explain changing patterns of religious discourse on the web, we may nonetheless document those changes.

First, the sharia law episode prompted a step-change in the levels of attention paid to the domain of the archbishop of Canterbury, as evidenced by the incidence of inbound links, and also a broadening of the types of hosts that contained those links. Second, a comparison of the inbound links to the Canterbury domain to that of the archbishop of York suggests that the historic privilege given to the views of Canterbury over those of York was extended onto the web. Regardless of their actual status in relation to each other within the Church of England, the media and the public at large seemed only to pay attention to Canterbury. Finally, a qualitative examination of the site of the British National Party shows that at least one organization, with a very particular concern with the place of Islam in British life, certainly took new account of the person of the archbishop as a result of the 2008 controversy.

This chapter has also sought to use the episode as a means of demonstrating both the potential for historians to utilize the archived web to address older questions in a new way, and some of the particular issues of method that web archives present. At one level, the methodological complications presented here – understanding the meaning of a link from one resource to another, say – are peculiar to the archived web and must be understood anew. As with all other born- digital sources, there is work to be done amongst historians in understanding these issues of method, and in acquiring the skills needed to handle data at scale. At the same time, it is part of the historian’s stock- in- trade to assess the provenance of a body of sources, its completeness and the contexts in which those sources were transmitted and received. The task at hand is in fact the application of older critical methods to a new kind of source: a challenge which historians have confronted and overcome before.

This chapter has also tried to show some of the potential available to historians, should they accept the challenge. In the study of public controversy, the archived web allows the detection of changing communication patterns at scale that would be impossible using a traditional qualitative method. It also enables the detection of attention being paid online in places where a scholar would not think to look. More generally, the chapter has attempted to outline an approach that combines quantitative readings of the links in web archives with qualitative examination of particular subsets of resources. When dealing with a new superabundance of historical sources, a combination of distant and close reading will be required to understand the archived web.

Web archives: a new class of primary source for historians ?

On June 11th I gave a short paper at the Digital History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, looking at the implications of web archives for historical practice, and introducing some of the work I’ve been doing (at the British Library) with the JISC-funded Analytical Access to the Domain Dark Archive project. It picked up on themes in a previous post here.

There is also an audio version here at HistorySpot along with the second paper in the session, given by Richard Deswarte.

The abstract (for the two papers together) reads:

When viewed in historical context, the speed at which the world wide web has become fundamental to the exchange of information is perhaps unprecedented. The Internet Archive began its work in archiving the web in 1996, and since then national libraries and other memory institutions have followed suit in archiving the web along national or thematic lines. However, whilst scholars of the web as a system have been quick to embrace archived web materials as the stuff of their scholarship, historians have been slower in thinking through the nature and possible uses of a new class of primary source.

“In April 2013 the six legal deposit libraries for the UK were granted powers to archive the whole of the UK web domain, in parallel with the historic right of legal deposit for print. As such, over time there will be a near-comprehensive archive of the UK web available for historical analysis, which will grow and grow in value as the span of time it covers lengthens. This paper introduces the JISC-funded AADDA (Analytical Access to the Domain Dark Archive) project. Led by the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in partnership with the British Library and the University of Cambridge, AADDA seeks to demonstrate the value of longitudinal web archives by means of the JISC UK Web Domain Dataset. This dataset includes the holdings of the Internet Archive for the UK for the period 1996-2010, purchased by the JISC and placed in the care of the British Library. The project has brought together scholars from the humanities and social sciences in order to begin to imagine what scholarly enquiry with assets such as these would look like.