The web lives in the present tense. But, as librarians understand all too well, scholarly research and knowledge production require sustainable long-term access and preservation of evidence that supports the deciphering and understanding of the world. The broken links we encounter throughout the web can signify the loss of important information, sometimes when it seems to matter the most. In addition, as those of us in global studies librarianship are especially well placed to appreciate, information that may not be congenial to those in power is especially vulnerable and the disappearance of opposing ideas and agendas can frame narratives and shape policies that reproduce and/or reinforce political control. Many important questions open up when we consider web archiving: How do we select and curate what to archive? What should be our thematic focus? What perspectives do we preserve? How do we achieve sustainability? What tools to use? Who can we partner with, as we take in the breathtaking magnitude of the task at hand? All of these questions are relevant to the aim of minimizing the negative impact of the number of instances of that dreaded message: “Sorry, this page does not exist!”
The Latin America Libraries of the North East Consortium (LANE) has had web archiving on its agenda for the past few years. However the thought of selecting content to preserve from the vast and inestimable world of the web often seemed daunting and intimidating. In a collaborative setting where lots of good ideas surface but consensus is harder to achieve, focusing on a thematic collection would also prove to be a challenge. However as Latin Americanist librarians we know from decades of organizational efforts dedicated to collecting in the region that collaboration is key to successful outcomes.
This month, the Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation launched the Brazilian Presidential Transition (2018) Web Archive, a collection built by the Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation and member libraries of LANE with significant contributions from members of the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials (SALALM). The Archive consists of Brazilian government websites in the areas of human rights, the environment, LGBTQ issues, and culture, for the period following the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil on October 28, 2018, up to his inauguration on January 1, 2019. A timely and urgent collection borne out of Pasteur’s maxim, “In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind.”
During a meeting I hosted at Columbia University Libraries in November 2017 I invited several speakers to talk about their work in web archiving. Alex Thurman and Samantha Abrams gave the group an overview of web archiving issues including global efforts to preserve a continuously vanishing landscape, the technology and infrastructure that currently supports preservation, the technical and ethical challenges of preserving spaces such as social media platforms and the workflows necessary for starting a web archiving project.
It was also important to hear from two Columbia colleagues who had already developed collections and thought through criteria for inclusion. Pamela Graham, who curates the Human Rights Web Archive and Christine Sala who curates the Avery Library Historic Preservation and Urban Planning Web Archive, spoke about developing collections, the process of selecting content, creating descriptive metadata for discovery, and potential use of these collections for future researchers. What was particularly helpful about these talks was seeing how this new sphere of collecting could work in parallel with our established forms of collecting and how much the thinking process for selecting web content mirrors the collecting of traditional library material. The 2017 meeting made web archiving accessible and ostensibly possible for the group.
While the group was determined to work on something, we had not reached a consensus on the content of the web archiving project yet. This had to wait another year, when the Fall LANE meeting was held at New York University in October of 2018. We were instructed by LANE chair Jill Baron (Dartmouth Library) to “come prepared with a topic idea we are passionate about, and be ready to convince others that the websites reflecting this topic necessitate collection and preservation action.”
The group brainstormed about any and all topics of interests and voted on four topics that we could focus our energies on. Small groups researched and compiled content for the four collections. Some of the topics didn’t yield the information we expected and one of the topics we worked on stood out for its immediacy, vulnerability, and relevance to collection priorities established by many in the group.
Our meeting took place a couple of weeks after Jair Bolsonaro had come in the first round of the Brazilian presidential election and a couple of days before he would go on to win the run-off election. Throughout his campaign Bolsonaro repeatedly made statements about his agenda and his vision for government that concerned academics, journalists and activists. LANE decided to prioritize Brazilian government websites in the areas of human rights, the environment, LGBTQ issues, and culture. We considered these sites to be vulnerable due to anticipated consolidation, elimination or defunding.
Over the next couple of months we researched state and federal government sites in the hopes of capturing as much as we could before Bolsonaro took power. Given the scope of the work and the size of Brazil as a country it was clear we needed help. LANE is a regional group under the umbrella of the Seminar for the Acquisition of Latin American Materials (SALALM) and we called on our colleagues for assistance and many of them graciously contributed some of their time to our effort. Our colleague Samantha Abrams, Ivy Plus Libraries Web Resources Collection Librarian worked diligently to capture the sites within a limited amount of time.
As the Brazilian specialist at the Library of Congress Talía Guzman-González has been instrumental to this project. LC archived the 2010 Brazilian election and this past election and Talía’s deep expertise in the region was particularly helpful. Metadata in a crowdsourced project requires some editorial cohesiveness and Talía, Jill and I led the effort to normalize subject headings, geographic descriptions and descriptive fields. The results of this work is a snapshot of government content before Bolsonaro took office, with the aim of preserving these important, but potentially ephemeral, documents for researchers and scholars.
We very much hope that this effort will inspire other collaborative web archiving projects, to preserve and provide continuous access to timely and important scholarly global content!
Sócrates Silva (2CUL Latin American and Iberian Studies Librarian)