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Ephemera to Artefact – Digital Repositories Online February 10, 2009

Posted by Rebecca Kahn in Features.
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In preparation for the seminar, I started out thinking about artefacts – what they are and how they are defined.
The best definition I found was from Wikipedia, and it defined artefacts as “An object made by a human being, typically something of cultural or historical interest”.
This definition is useful, because it can be used for many different kinds of artefacts, both those that exist in the analogue world, which most people are familiar with, and the digital world.

Analogue artefacts are easy to identify. They’re the sculptures, paintings, songs, and artworks that we all know from the museums, archives and repositories that we are familiar with.
But in the digital world, the term “artefact” is an accurate descriptor for many more works that are less easy to categorise. For example, videos, online maps, photos from Flickr, blog posts and eBooks are all artefacts, if we return to our original definitions.

But we can’t always find these artefacts in the spaces we are used to looking in. Many of them aren’t in museums, libraries or archives. They’re being created in the digital world, and being stored in digital spaces. This may be sufficient for now, but the reality is that these digital spaces like Flickr, YouTube and Google aren’t libraries or museums, and were never designed to be. They’re commercial entities, built to be businesses, and owned, often, by clever people, who aren’t, and never intended to be, archivists. It’s an ill-fit. And this ill-fit is often compounded by the fact that people use these spaces as if they were archives, libraries or museums, because it’s often easier to look for information on Google than it is to go to a library.

However, there are some online spaces that really are archives in any sense, and some people who are approaching the Internet and all the content in it from a traditional archival perspective.

The first is the Internet Archive. This is an organisation that started with the specific aim of taking Internet content and reclassifying what many people consider to be ephemera as artefact by creating an online archive of the Internet.
The Internet Archive has several components. The first is called the WayBack Machine. This is less of a machine and more of a real-time archive of the Internet. It takes “snapshots” of the Internet at regular intervals, and is able, that way to provide an ongoing time capsule of what is online at any one time.

All the material on the Internet Archive, in the Wayback Machine or in the other collections, is free to use for researchers, scholars and historians, and it is all available for reuse, either under Creative Commons licences, or in the Public Domain. The Internet Archive also has extensive digital media, text, moving image and audio archives, including archived material from the BBC, Wikipedia, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and the Open Dictionary.

Another feature of the Internet Archive this the Archive IT project. This project is an immediate, permanent archive, based on a subscription model, for any digital collection. As of February 2009 there are 700 million unique URLs and 718 public collections hosted on Archive IT. What makes this project particularly interesting from an archival perspective are the collections that have chosen to host their digital collections on the site. The national libraries of Australia and Chile have uploaded their collections, as well as libraries from academic institutions like Stanford and Columbia universities in the USA, The University of Toronto and the University of Ghent. Archival institutions have also chosen to use it, and collections from the British Slave Legacy Project and the Electronic Literature Organisation are hosted on the site.

Another good example of an online repository is Project Gutenberg, which is one of the oldest digital repositories on the Internet. Founded in 1971, it is a free of charge, free to use, free to reuse library of eBooks. It’s funded by volunteers and a charitable foundation, and relies heavily on volunteers to help with the effort to digitise, archive and distribute cultural works and to encourage creation of ebooks, audio books, and digitised sheet music.
At the time of writing there are full texts of over 27 000 public domain books in open formats, and in several languages in Project Gutenberg, ranging from ancient texts from Shakespeare and the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata to the poetry of C Louis Liepoldt.

There are several pros associated with the use of online repositories like The Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg for South African heritage projects:
• Tech is taken care of – digitising a collection is an expensive undertaking, and often, it’s the cost of building the software that makes it really daunting. In case of these repositories, the software is there. And it’s been built and is being maintained by geeks who are into archives, which means the cost and responsibility isn’t the archives problem. This makes them perfect for collection of all sizes.
• Scalable – It is easy for the material to go from one source to many, many users, because it’s easily accessible and free. • Copyright “free” – only material around which there are no copyright issues is uploaded.
• Assured of the longevity of the projects – these archives aren’t going anywhere. They’re not a business that might go bust. This is what they are mandated to do. They’re making allowances for new technology and media as they are created.

However there are also several drawbacks:
• There is very little South African content on either of these sites.
• Ownership is often a contentious issue in the heritage sector in South Africa, and many people who may donate material are suspicious of a foreign entity that appears to be taking their heritage.
• No versions of these repositories exist in South African languages other than English.
• Awareness of the public domain on the Internet is very low in South Africa, and very few people know about this provision, let alone understand how to use it.

By profiling these case studies, I’m in no way suggesting that we reinvent the wheel, and I’m not suggesting that all archives abandon current projects and add all their material to Internet Archive, or to Project Gutenberg. But I think, if we started to think about these archives, and the other out there like them, in a more integrated way, there could be very exciting possibilities.
Imagine a public library in Queenstown that has a portal to Project Gutenberg, so all library users can access the Gutenberg holdings. Or a classroom that uses the Internet Archive for school projects, allowing kids to download and use the resources supplied, and upload their own content into the archive where it will be preserved forever.

One of the most exciting features of the internet is that it is inherently global and democratic, and I think that if South Africans start participating a little bit more in this global democracy, there could be results that we can’t even begin to imagine.

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