This All Seems Familiar

Touring the Special Collections Resource Center at Temple this week and seeing some of the chaos induced by the move and new work flows vividly reminded me of my struggles with an archive of a different sort. Before coming to graudate school I worked for a television network, where my day-to-day job relied heavily on working with a media library that was responisble for maintaining an archive of episodes, movies, and promotional materials.

Throughout the three years working for this company, the library went under constant and drastic changes, many of which happened with little to no input from the people using the materials. Each change resulted in more precarious preservation and decreased accessibility, all for the sake of office aesthetics.

When I first started, I was shocked to see that all of the company’s media assets were almost exclusively archived on HDCam tapes. If an old episode or arhived promotional spot was needed, a digitization request had to be submitted. The process was slow; digitizing an episode could take up to one week. Once digitized, there was no method in place to store the digital file. So the company perpetually wasted time re-digitizing files whenever they were needed again. This led to the creation of an informal archive at my desk of digitized files on various hard drives.

HDCams that were frequently used were initally kept on site in the office. These tapes were used weekly by multiple producers and editors. However, when the library was rennovated to house new desks, the company decided to move almost all of the tapes off site, to an office fifty miles away in Connecticut. A truck would deliver assets from offsite twice a week. This led to the creation of many mini-libraries, as people began hoarding assets at their desks and in offices so as to not lose accessibility. What we did lose was multiple tapes.

I did have control over our online archive of promotional campaigns. I inherited a hodge-podge collection of our show’s campaigns and reorganized the entire system to be more accessible. However, a month or so before the leaving the job the company announced it was switching platforms, meaning that terabytes of files needed to be downloaded from the old site and reuploaded and reorganized on the new one. I am not so sad to say, that I left before the chaos ensued.

So Many Boxes, So Little Time: Planning a Visit to the Archive

The archive used to intimidate me. Thankfully, after a few weeks in my Archives & Manuscripts graduate course, I feel more prepared to plan my first visit to an archive for my dissertation research.

In two weeks, I am visiting the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Maryland to look at their Children’s Television Workshop collection. I started planning my visit by looking through the collection’s online finding aid. The entire collection contains 14 series that amount to 456 linear feet of material. The volume was initially overwhelming, but I know I’ll be making several return trips. For this visit, I narrowed down my search to the series specifcally focused on Sesame Street (which totals 30 linear feet).

Having never conducted research in an archive, it is difficult to know how many boxes to request or what material to start with. My hoarder tendencies want to see as much as possible, but I know I need a more realistic approach.

To find a starting point, I browsed the boxes within the four sub-series: Planning and Production, Promotion, Viewer Mail, and Ancillary Materials. I scanned each box for folders that either caught my attention or surprised me. One box contained over twenty folders labeled “Anti-Abortion Mail”. I have yet to read anything about the issue of abortion in relation to Sesame Street; I was hooked. Other boxes contained folders on playgrounds, Sesame Street magazine, and folder after folder of viewer criticisms, praise, and letters from parents and kids. I ended up with a list of eight boxes that picqued my interest.

Before putting in a request, I reached out to the archivst to let them know when I was planning on visiting and to give them a broad overview of what I was interested in looking at. One of the archivsts wrote back and said the viewer mail is some of the most interesting content in the collection and it was a great place to start.

After an hour or two of work, I was surprised at how learning basic skills like navigating finding aids and understanding an archive’s structure, made the entire endeavor seem more inviting and doable. Hopefully that feeling continues when I step into the archive to begin my research.


If a tweet doesn’t make it to the archive, does it still exist?

In 2010, the Library of Congress (LOC) announced they would be archiving Twitter’s arsenal of tweets, dating back to 2006 and moving forward in perpetuity. However, the volume of tweets quickly overwhelmed the collecting process. In 2013, when the LOC finished cataloging tweets from 2006 to 2010, the collection included over 170 billion tweets. While tweets might seem small, billions of them add up. The tweets collected required over 300 terabytes of data storage.*

In December of 2017, the LOC changed its collection policy for Twitter. For all tweets posted after 2017, the archive would be far more selective about the historical importance of tweets entering the archive.

The decision to archive tweets was ambitious and the hurdles that have come up in the collecting process will establish lasting precedents for the archiving of other social and digital platforms. There are already a number of concerns I have had with the twitter archive in my own research.

The first is access.

The collected tweets are currently inaccessible to research due to a series of concerns with Twitter’s privacy policies and LOC’s resource priorities. According to a LOC press release, “There is no projected timetable for providing public access.”**

When the tweets do become accessible, there is still the issue of what tweets will meet the standards of the collecting policy. Tweets are significant sources for multiple disciplines, but in history they give us unprecedented access to understand history from the bottom up. Twitter is an open forum for social interaction, public opinion, and political debate between average Americans. If the archive is too selective about whose tweets are worth saving, we risk losing access to these conversations.

The inclusion in the archive isn’t just about access, it is also about the prestige of the archive in the historical profession.

When writing about a seemingly trivial subject like Sesame Street, I often face criticism over the legitimacy of my evidence as historical sources. Archives help to legitimize source material, elevating material as historically significant. On a practical level, when applying to research fellowships, you include a list of archives you wish to visit. You cannot receive a fellowship for trolling Twitter for tweets about felt puppets.

These are just a few of the challenges posed by the Twitter archive from a research perspective. I am wary, but excited, to continue to navigate these turns as I continue my project.





The Pitfalls of a Keyword Search

The ability to search by keyword through terabytes of files may at first seem like a helpful shortcut to cutdown on time spent rifling through unrelated sources, but as Ian Milligan argues, we cannot simply “outsource our intellectual labor to a search engine like Google.”* Instead, as historians, we must equip ourselves for the age of digital research by increasing our data fluency and understanding the pitfalls of abundance.

One of the main concerns to methodology in the digital age is the threat of losing the evidential value that defines the traditional archive. Evidential value is the organization of archival materials so that researchers understand the context of the sources. Archivists work to establish as close to the organic whole for each collection and organize it in such a way to maintain the historical context. A keyword search has the potential to isolate a source from its place in a collection and remove the original context completely.

As we¬† lose our “paper trails” maintaining the context will become an even greater responsibility for the historian. That being said, context is not impossible to retain within in a digital archive, but it will require historians to think about context more carefully as they sort through digital sources.

Another concern is that the traditional questions we apply to archives – who created this archive, where did the material come from, what has been removed or is missing – may be harder to ascertain unless we learn an appropriate level of data fluency. Historians need to actively think about how data (and metadata) operates, how digital files are stored and retrieved, and “humans’ role at all stages” of the creation and use of data management.*

While some skills in a historian’s toolbelt will come in handy in a new age of digital archival research, for new methodological obstacles we may currently be ill-equipped or ill-prepared to do our research responsibly.


** Ian Milligan, “Historians’ achival research looks quite different in the digital age,” The Conversation, August 19, 2019.