Digital Preservation in Higher Education

17 Oct 2012

Cross-posted on digitalcultureweek.

I was particularly interested in a paper mentioned in Roger's post last week on Archiving Twitter. The paper, recently published by Hany M. SalahEldeen and Michael L. Nelson of Dominican University, found that 11% of resources shared on Twitter are lost after one year (and 20% archived after a year) and after one year we lose .02% per day (for those interested, there are more details on the methods used in the study in an earlier blog post written by the authors). The tweets themselves are not lost but rather the resources linked to in the tweets are lost, such as photos, videos, and websites. It is not news that information on the web disappears, especially in the ephemeral world of social media, but the study affixes a number to the atrophy and places it within the context of significant social and cultural events.

Why is this important? Without the resources shared via social media, we lose not only the context but also important pieces of the conversation. Attached pictures are as much a part of the first draft of history as the 140 characters that describe or comment on the picture. Similarly, Tom Chatfield notes that what is vulnerable is "the network of living connections into which social media is a window: the nexus of sources, resources, sounds, images and updates that together constitute the stuff of many millions of people's daily experience."

What are the implications for higher education? This decay of information presents a problem not just to historians in some distant future but to current scholars studying an array of contemporary subjects. However, does higher education have a responsibility to preserve this content? It is impractical on many levels to expect any organization to preserve the entire social media output along with the resources shared on these platforms. But it would be feasible for universities to capture content that hits close to home or fits its curricular or research needs, such as the University of Virginia Library has done with collecting content and allowing the public to upload content regarding the President Sullivan controversy or the Tweeting #OWS project at Emory University's Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC).

Many libraries and digital humanities centers are already engaging in preservation of born-digital objects and would be logical partners for such projects. More broadly, it is an opportunity for higher education to examine the issues involved in digital preservation, which is still very much an emerging field, and understand how participation can support institutional, curricular, and research needs.

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