Then Libraries Came for the Memes

I recently mentioned the prolonged work in progress that is the US Library of Congress’s Twitter archive, but while we wait for it, other digital archives have finally come to fruition. In an effort to preserve the aesthetic and language developments that have defined the past decades, the Library of Congress has created the Webcomics Web Archive and the Web Cultures Web Archive.

“Main Reading room of the Library of Congress,” Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, 2009, via Wikimedia.

The Library of Congress began collecting the information for these archives in June of 2014. Rather than manually copying relevant webpages, the Library uses web crawlers that travel the internet and make copies of the content on it. (Search engines are perhaps the best known users of web crawlers. They use them to create indexes.)

In a press release for the archives, Elizabeth Peterson, the director of the American Folklife Center, stated, “The proliferation of smart phones, tablets and wireless internet connection has positioned networked communication as a space where people increasingly develop and share folklore…This effort will help scholars 25 and 100 years from now have a fuller picture of the culture and life of people today.” Rather than stories about Baba Yaga we have memes and emoji’s, and just like scholars study older lore new scholars will want to study what we’ve done on the internet.

Though both of the archives are fairly small, they contain some interesting material. I’m highlighting a few of the most popular comics and sites here.

Full disclosure: as of June 17, 2017, I was having trouble accessing much of the content in the collections. Those issues could be a result of my wonky internet, or it’s possible the Library still needs to work out some kinks in its system.

Webcomics Web Archive – This archive currently contains 41 webcomics including popular ones such as Hyperbole and a Half, Dinosaur Comics!, Hark! a Vagrant, and xkcd. The Library chose webcomics by focusing on ones that had won major awards as well as those whose subjects are not always well-represented in mainstream media.

Web Cultures Web Archive – The name of this collection raises the question: what counts as a web culture? The Library has chosen 34 sites that have helped create the shared language, references, and jokes that compose what it considers to be web culture. Some of these include Urban Dictionary, the Internet Meme Database, Giphy, and Metafilter.

An example of a lolcat and the types of memes present in the Web Culture Web Archive. Armbrust, “You Gotz a lolcat,” December 31, 2008, via Wikimedia.

In the discussion of a possible Twitter archive, several people raised questions that are also relevant to the Webcomics and Web Cultures archives. How do we choose what to preserve? What do lolcats and urban legends tell us about contemporary society? Are we keeping enough information to give all of these screenshots context? What if the Library missed something?

Even though it is fascinating that the Library of Congress is creating these archives, I do want to encourage people to click through to the original webcomics rather than simply perusing the view captures posted on the collection websites. After all, many of the original artists make money off of their creations through banner ads on their websites. It would be a shame if the archives took away any of that income.

5 thoughts on “Then Libraries Came for the Memes

  1. Glad you made the last point – to click through to the sites. I do love that so many things are being archived in ways that alien species will be sufficiently confused by, but I don’t like that it may result in artists losing income streams. Your solution is the best one!

    Liked by 1 person

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