Librarian Julie Swierczek Calls Social Media "Wild West" of Archiving World

Julie Swierczek

The Atlantic: Should Prince's Tweets Be in a Museum?

Librarian Julie Swierczek is interested in how context may be preserved or lost in archiving social media for a future audience. In the wake of Prince’s death, Swierczek spoke to The Atlantic about the challenges presented by archiving digital presences, specifically Twitter accounts:

[T]he notion of isolating a Twitter feed from the surrounding noise generated by the 24-hour news cycle, content churn, and the other 310 million active users poses its own set of problems for archivists. Aside from a general knowledge about the service, and the legal complications regarding Twitter’s ownership of what’s published on the site, “there’s this whole insider culture you have to understand,” says Julie Swierczek, a librarian at Swarthmore College and formerly a digital archivist at Harvard Art Museums. Hashtags, for instance, she says, can be used ironically, to participate in a game or conversation, to express solidarity with a movement—like #BlackLivesMatter—or to react to a meme or fandom culture—like #WinterIsComing. A single tweet with a trending hashtag lacks the context of its associated online community or discussion.  

There’s also the headache of Twitter-specific jargon and practices like mentioning a brand or individual by Twitter handle. Letters are exclusive; one person writes to another, and generally, the relationship is clear. But mapping of an artist’s contacts through Twitter feeds would be like trying to untangle thousands of yarn spools after bored cats unraveled them in a cluttered studio apartment. People tag celebrities, politicians, and brands as a joke, to pick a fight, demonstrate agreement, attribute a quote, or praise a new product.

Swierczek calls social-media platforms the “Wild West” of the archiving world. Suddenly researchers have to invent new guidelines for future protocol, as well as new tools and databases. Swierczek compares this new demand to what must have happened with the invention of the printing press.

 

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Julie Swierczek is the librarian for primary resources and metadata services for the Swarthmore College Peace Collection and Friends Historical Library. Previously she served as the digital asset manager and digital archivist at the Harvard Art Museums. She has presented on social media archiving at the 2015 Personal Digital Archiving Conference and at the 2016 Harvard IT Summit. Swierczek earned a B.A. in history and philosophy from Rosemont College, an M.A. in philosophy from Miami of Ohio University, and an M.S.L.I.S. from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.