A tale of two web archives: Challenges of engaging web archival infrastructures for research

Jessica Ogden, Emily Maemura

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Abstractpeer-review


Web archives (WAs) are a key source for historical web research, and recent anthologies provide examples of their use by scholars from a range of disciplines (Brügger, 2017; Brügger 2018; Brügger & Schroeder, 2017). Much of this work has drawn on large-scale collections, with a particular focus on the use of national web domain collections (Brügger & Laursen, 2019; Hockx-Yu, 2016). This previous work demonstrates how WAs afford new scholarship opportunities, yet little work has addressed how researcher engagement is impacted by the complexity of WA collection and curation. Further research has begun to address the impact of specific organizational settings where the technical constraints interact with policy frameworks and the limitations of resources and labour. (Dougherty & Meyer, 2014; Hockx-Yu, 2014; Maemura et al. 2018; Ogden et al., 2017). Here, we extend this work to consider how these factors influence subsequent engagement, to investigate the very real barriers researchers face when using WAs as a source for research. This paper explores the challenges of researcher engagement from the vantage point of two national WAs: the UK Web Archive at the British Library, and Netarkivet at the Royal Danish Library. We compare and contrast our experiences of undertaking WA research at these institutions. Our personal interactions with the collections are supplemented by observations of practice and interviews with staff, in an effort to investigate the circumstances that shape the ways that researchers use WAs. We compare these two national WAs along several dimensions, including: the legal mandates for collection; the ontological decisions that drive practices; the affordances of tools and technical standards; everyday infrastructural maintenance and labour; and the ways in which all of the above constructs the interfaces through which WAs are researched. Our approach explores the materiality of WAs data across these two sites to acknowledge the generative capabilities of web archiving, and reinforce an understanding that these data are not given or ‘natural’ (Gitelman, 2013). We highlight how the sociotechnical infrastructure of web archiving shapes researcher access, the types of questions asked and the methods used. Here, access is conceived of not only in terms of ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ data, but rather as a spectrum of possibilities that orientates researchers to particular ways of working with data, whilst often decontextualising them from the circumstances of their creation. We question which kinds of digital research are afforded by national WAs, particularly when the scoping of collection boundaries on ccTLDs (top level domains) creates ‘artificial geographic boundaries’ (Winters, in press). Through this process we recognise and centre the assumptions about collection and use that are embedded in these research infrastructures, to facilitate a discussion of how they both enable and foreclose on particular forms of engagement with the Web’s past.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 7 Oct 2020
EventEngaging with Web Archives: Opportunities, Challenges and Potentialities - Maynooth University, Maynooth, Ireland
Duration: 21 Sep 202022 Sep 2020


ConferenceEngaging with Web Archives: Opportunities, Challenges and Potentialities
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