Teaching and learning web archiving: An interview with Samantha Abrams and Joe Schill

September 2nd, 2020

by Karl-Rainer Blumenthal, Web Archivist for Archive-It

Since 2007, Archive-It educational partnerships have connected graduate and undergraduate students to the technology, instruction, and resources that they need to curate and preserve web archive collections. See the Educational Partnerships page in Archive-It’s Help Center for a complete list of these courses, their collections, and syllabi. And never hesitate to contact us directly when we can help to contribute to a web archiving module to your course in archival studies, library and information science, digital humanities, or preservation.

Samantha Abrams, Web Resources Collection Librarian for the Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation, teaches one such course for the iSchool at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, LIS640: Web Archiving. But Abrams also leads a first-of-its-kind continuing education course at the iSchool designed specifically for working professionals nationwide who want to add web archiving to their portfolios or strengthen their experience: Introduction to Web Archiving. I wondered what the students might take from these courses into their newly digital-first positions at remote offices around the country, so I asked Abrams and continuing education student Joe Schill, Archivist for the Corning Museum of Glass’s Rakow Research Library, to tell me more about their own goals and experiences.

KB: Samantha, can you introduce us to your students? Who takes web archiving courses and how do you design a course to engage them?

SA: Both classes are short (the Master’s course lasts five weeks and the Continuing Education course six) and are designed to be practical and hands-on. Students enrolled in both courses come from all backgrounds. I’ve had the pleasure to teach folks interested in working at, or already working at, public and academic libraries, corporate archives, hospitals, high schools, television news outlets, museums, and more!

Both courses are similarly structured, though the Master’s version requires more work and reading, in line with the iSchool’s course load expectations for degree-seekers (about forty-five hours of work overall for the one-credit course), while the Continuing Education version requires about two hours of work per week. At the beginning of both courses, students pick a topic that they’d like to work with. I’ve seen everything from Instagram celebrities and their dogs, to favorite bands, to hospital web pages, and the assignments expand from there. Over the proceeding weeks, students write collection policies, run test and one-time crawls with the Archive-It web application, undertake quality assurance, brainstorm metadata requirements and access policies for their collection, and record live web sessions with Conifer. I want students in both versions of the course to walk away with tangible skills–to be able to say that they can operate the two most commonly used web archiving tools in the United States, to be able to articulate collection decisions, and to feel confident in their ability to engage with web archiving concepts on a day-to-day basis as a professional.

KB: What topic or domain did you select for these writing and collecting assignments then, Joe?

JS: I decided to do something fun, that I could put in the course’s Archive-It account without worrying about it like the collections I work on at the Rakow Research Library. I knew I wanted to include social media in the mix, and since I’ve been listening to a lot of music while I work from home, I thought, ‘why not a band?’ So, I chose The Traveling Wilburys. The collection included the websites of each bandmember and various social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. 

Screenshot from Joe Schill's Traveling Wilburys web archive

(Web) archiving the archives: A test capture from Joe Schill’s Traveling Wilburys collection

KB: What comes next for you? Is there anything specific from the course that you look forward to bringing back to the museum library’s collections?

JS: One of the most helpful aspects of the class is that it prompted me to think about establishing policies and procedures for the library’s web archiving program. Creating metadata standards, articulating specific goals and priorities, and using a standard form to organize and track the quality assurance work are three things from the course that I’m currently developing for the Rakow now, too.

Screenshot from the Corning Museum of Glass's web archive collection of glass artists' sites

The Corning Museum of Glass collections include glass artists and their organizations in addition to institutional archives

KB: Has teaching the course a couple of times now influenced your own practice as a web archivist, Samantha? Did you learn anything new yourself?

SA: Absolutely! My day job involves communicating the value of web archiving to all kinds of information professionals: University Librarians, Catalogers, Subject Specialists, and on. Being able to revisit and refine documentation I’ve created for both courses has been a bonus. I often share the training materials I’ve created for the iSchool with Confederation staff who are interested in learning more about the specific topics, and, in turn, recenter my outreach efforts to be less in the weeds and more about the big picture. 

I’m also very much indebted to my students. Each semester, the conversations that they start challenge me to reframe my thinking. I’m driven to be more ethical and think deeper about the collection decisions I make day-to-day in particular. Last semester, multiple students independently shared the Archiving Protest Content While Protecting Activists webinar from Documenting the Now, and led great discussions on how to collect content related to the current Coronavirus pandemic ethically. Students in both courses are coming from all different backgrounds, and their perspectives make me both a better teacher and archivist. I am deeply grateful for them.