Reflections on teaching web archiving in MLIS coursework

July 1st, 2014

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ijames/

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ijames/

This is a guest post written by Jefferson Bailey, who has been the Strategic Initiatives Manager at Metropolitan New York Library Council and an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Information Sciences. Jefferson recently joined the Internet Archive; and we welcome him onto the team, and look forward to his expertise and insight in educational partnerships.
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For the Spring 2014 semester, Alison Langmead and I, with teaching assistant James King, taught “Preserving Digital Culture” in the archives track of the MLIS program at University of Pittsburgh. While our course sought to combine a humanities, disciplinary, and practitioner approach to digital preservation, and covered more than just web archiving, the final assignment for the five student working groups was to create web archive collections using Archive-It and to write and present on their collections and the process of creating them. You can find the five student group collections on the Archive-It educational partner page and more details about the assignment online.

Some key themes emerged from having a web archiving assignment as part of our class:

Bridging traditional archival concepts and web archiving concepts and practices

Fundamental concepts like appraisal, description, access, and preservation remain as relevant to web archiving as to traditional archival practices. But web archives also introduce interesting differences given their ability for full text searching, reliance on automated tools of capture and analysis, the intriguing mix of organic website structure and so-called “artificial” (aka topical or event-based) collections, and other unique characteristics. Instructors are thus obligated to pay special attention to the need to couple web archiving concepts and activities with broader archival theories. In addition, once students get into the nitty-gritty of Archive-It’s specific interface, functionalities, reporting, and even terminology, the relation of what they are doing within the tool can, for them, become detached from the more abstract concepts of the archival endeavor.

Capturing the live web also has the potential to introduce a certain temporal dissonance for students who, at this point in their education, are often more familiar with archival collections acquired only after a creator’s death, an institution’s closure, or a record group’s inactivity. That ambiguity can be both invigorating, but also disorienting, and benefits from additional classroom attention and discussion.

Balancing learning curves and learning outcomes

Web archiving in the classroom can mirror (at a more finite scale) the same duties and activities of professional web archivists in a way that other MLIS classes seldom can match. This is an exciting opportunity for instructors, but one with concomitant challenges. One difficulty is in striking the right balance between students’ frustration in learning and using a new technology and their pride in successfully mastering that technology to accomplish large-scale automated actions. Similarly, instructors are required to clearly illustrate how specific features and presumptions built into a technology inherently support, undermine, or otherwise complicate larger archival principles. The technology can help illuminate the problematics behind a concept, not just a functionality, but those lessons require special attention to detail from instructors.

Scoping the assignment & student collaboration

Similar to the above point, there is also a logistical challenge to a web archiving assignment, as it needs to build in enough lead time to allow students to experiment, build meaningful, satisfactory collections, and analyze and report back on their experience. This can be hard to schedule as just one assignment in a semester. Also, using web archiving in coursework offers an opportunity to foster group-based work and collection building. While assigning individual tasks within a group should be responsibility of the students themselves, group dynamics, in school as in life, can be complex and can impede an assignment’s progress and overall outcome.

The workflow of Archive-It thankfully allows ample opportunity for monitoring assignments or collections that may be going off-track, but the multifaceted nature of web archiving requires especially clear guidelines and open and ongoing communication on an each group’s or student’s progress.

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While some of these themes are true for any course that attempts to intertwine theory and practice, lecture and lab, using web archiving in the classroom does require a distinct mindfulness towards balancing assignment requirements, outcomes, semester timelines, and course objectives. Hopefully these notes, alongside the broader Archive-It Educational Partnership program, can help encourage better use and integration of web archiving in MLIS courses and curricula.

There are other excellent examples of web archiving in the MLIS classroom, such as the assignment Kari Kraus used in her Information Access in the Humanities class at UMD (an additional post from one of her students can be found at The Signal) and the Web Archiving class taught by Michael Shallcross at UMSI. I took inspiration from, and owe thanks to, both of them for making their syllabi/assignments publicly available.

Even bigger thanks go out to Archive-It for setting up the Educational Partnership that made our assignment possible and to Lori Donovan for doing a training session for students. You can read more about Archive-It’s Education Partnerships, and other classroom examples, on the blog.

Students and instructors are encourage to add any additional experiences with web archiving assignments in the MLIS classroom in the comments!