Making retrospective sense of cross media communications: a new archival challenge

By Maureen Pennock, University of Dundee, UK.

There’s an interesting article in the UK Guardian newspaper yesterday stating that there are now, on average, 7.2 ways to contact a person. Whilst this may at first seems like a large number, it’s actually pretty small. I sat down and counted up the number of ways I can be contacted and was not overly surprised to find that I double that number. I have:

  • A landline phone
  • A mobile phone (which kinda counts as two when you include calls v’s texts)
  • A Skype account
  • A Facebook account
  • A Twitter account
  • Five email accounts (gmail/family/home/work/Uni)
  • Membership of two online forums with private messaging facilities (yes, only two!)
  • A home address for snail mail (yes, that one is bottom of the list)

I don’t think I’m unrepresentative of my generation, and I suspect there are many people of my generation with even more communications channels open to them. I don’t have a Second Life life, for example (though I do have an as yet unused account), and I don’t have a MySpace. No doubt there are many people not of my generation who are the same – take Stephen Fry, for example. He’s a prolific Twitterer. So is Obama – search for twitter using Google and the second result (for me) is Twitter/BarackObama, with the by-line ‘brief reports from the president on what he’s doing and thinking’.

So what does this mean for archivists? At the very least, it will impact on the perceived ‘completeness’ of our collections, certainly insofar as personal archives are concerned (eg Stephen Fry). Not only do we face the challenge of identifying and capturing these communications, but we must also capture as many as possible – it may not be enough to just get one or two and use them as a ‘representative sample’. This is because most communications are split over several channels; capturing just one therefore means you only get part of the story and you’re missing vital context and further information to make sense of what you’ve got. For example, I use the internet to remain in touch with an ex-colleague. We communicate by Facebook, Twitter, and email. Oh, and he has a blog that I sometimes post messages to, and a YouTube channel. Some of our conversations are cross-media; they may start on Twitter, but they move to Facebook and then the blog. Capturing only one of those accounts means that only part of our conversation is captured. Okay, so you’re probably not interested in capturing our interactions in your archives. But you probably are interested in capturing interactions from important people (back to Stephen Fry and Obama again) and you will thus face the same issues.

Of course, this is notwithstanding the technical problems we face in capturing this information in the first place. We all know the problems we’ve got in capturing and archiving emails. What of Twitter? How do you get Tweets out of the system and integrate them into a collection? What of Facebook data? And YouTube?

We’re just beginning to touch on these issues and there’s much more to it than I can cover in this brief blog post. So expect more about this at a later date. In the meantime, I hope that the Digital Lives conference at the British Library will be addressing some of these issues.

5 responses to “Making retrospective sense of cross media communications: a new archival challenge

  1. Pingback: A new archival challenge, Personal Digital Archives for the 21st Century « Message Compass blog

  2. Hi Maureen,

    Interesting post! It’s scary the number of ways people can reach us these days. No wonder we are all going crazy for a bit of unplugged time!

    Some of the issues you mention (such as preserving tweets and Facebook information) have been explored in the JISC Preservation of Web Resources project. There is no easy answer but the handbook makes a good attempt to suggest pragmatic solutions.



  3. Hi Marieke,

    Thanks for your response and for flagging up the JISC-PoWR handbook – an oversight on my part there, missing that out!

    There’s a new post on Alan Bell’s blog that addresses some of these issues too, along with more information on issues raised at the Digital Lives conference. (WordPress doesn’t give me any tools for embedding that link – if I put a HTML link in manually, will it render properly?)


  4. Hi @ll,

    It´s sad, but the fax-machine still exists; it refuses to leave our organizations… That´s an average of 7.3 ways? 🙂


  5. Pingback: JISC PoWR » Blog Archive » Twitter Groups and Twitter Problems

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