Capturing a shifting reality

Curating and caretaking the U’s online presence

By Allison Campbell-Jensen

University of Minnesota websites and digital media reflect who we are, what we do, and what we represent — they express the identity of a department, a project, the U. Yet they morph with changes in focus, in leadership, in web capabilities, and web design. Developed on the shore where the solid organization meets the fluid ocean of users, websites can be seen as barrier islands, built for a certain time, until something shifts, and a new creation emerges.

Capturing these short-lived entities is the job of web archivists at the U. At one time, websites and other digital media may have been dismissed as too ephemeral to be worthwhile, says U Archivist Erik Moore, but “as we moved our work and personal lives online, web content became of primary importance.”

Materials collected change with the fast-moving nature of web content. Moore takes some pride in preserving nearly 10 years of the UThink Blog Platform materials from a variety of people who posted about “departmental communications, course projects, faculty publications, activism, student life, field notes, travel logs, and more.” In March, the COVID-19 web archives for the U were established. Now, he and his team are surveying campus to identify podcasts for preservation.

Capturing a constantly changing web

“Our web archive is an extension of what we would collect about the University, as part of our mandate to collect University history,” says Valerie Collins, Digital Repositories and Records Archivist. “It happens to be living in a different form; it happens to move a little more quickly than other materials we collect from departments.” The University’s web archiving program is an effort of the University Digital Conservancy and the University of Minnesota Archives.

While it might seem that some images or memes live on the Internet forever — when enough copies are made, they can have a foundation like a hotel built on a barrier island. More typically, the island shifts, the website moves, and the linked materials, whether center reports or research results, fall off.

To prevent potential losses, Collins continually finds new websites to archive, whether identifying a U department or unit that needs to have its materials collected, or having a colleague or communications person suggest a website be collected before a major re-design or decommissioning. Still, Moore notes, digital storage has space limitations and web archiving is at time-intensive activity. He and his team determine whether the website is within the scope for the collection and how often they may capture it to stay within their limits.

Accessing the U’s web archive

Currently, Collins believes the web archive’s “primary users are U Archives staff answering questions.” If a patron has a question about the U’s history starting in 1996, the staff typically access the web archives and bring information back to them. While savvy users may be able to navigate the U’s web collection at the University of Minnesota Archive-It collection page, Collins prefers “not to throw them off into the deep end.”

Collins says: “It always feels like you hit the jackpot when you are able to find that one specific item.” That said, Moore notes, some materials like reports and publications that were once available online can be accessed via the U’s Digital Conservancy.

Web content can provide evidence of when something happened, Moore says, it can contextualize events, and it can be material for less-expected discoveries that may connect multiple websites. Some of these uses will develop with future approaches and new needs.

Their aim now, Collins says, is to collect web and digital content “that in 10, 20, 30 years, this is information that people will want. It’s collecting and handing it off to the future, to make sure it’s there.”

And by so doing, ensuring these virtual barrier islands of U web content remain to explore.

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