NDSA Future Steward on Community Web Archiving: An Interview with Samantha Abrams
Every year, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) recognizes and encourages innovation in the field of digital preservation stewardship through its Innovation Awards. We’re delighted to talk with Samantha Abrams, recipient of the 2016 NDSA Future Steward Award, which recognizes emerging leaders taking a creative approach to advancing knowledge of digital preservation issues and practices. You can find all of our interviews with the NDSA Innovation Award winners here.
Samantha recently moved from Madison, Wisconsin, to Brooklyn, New York, where she works as the Community Archivist at StoryCorps. She is recognized for her work with the Madison Public Library and its Personal Archiving Lab as well as her initiative to create innovative projects and classes.
Can you share your thoughts and reflections on the state of community web archiving?
I’d argue — honestly and sincerely — that community web archiving has never been better. More and more smaller organizations — like public libraries, not-for-profit organizations, and small repositories — have started to realize that web archiving is well is within their reach, and they’ve started to do it. It helps, too, that the web archiving community is filled with so many conscious, smart people, who are looking to share what they’ve learned — and what they still have questions about — through doing their own work. One project — among so many — that I’m particularly excited about is Documenting the Now, which is being spearheaded by people genuinely interested in doing this web archiving (and social media archiving) work ethically, and for the greater good.
Can you offer a few suggestions for people interested in establishing a web archiving program for their own communities?
Yes! Two things: start small, and understand that you’ll never create the perfect web archive. Other things to think about: the archive’s target audience; the archive’s access points; how you’ll promote the archive; duplicate work; cost; sustainability; and inclusivity. Thinking critically — often — about the web archiving program you’re attempting to create gives it focus: often the desire to collect it all — quickly — becomes the plan, but what good is an over-saturated, unsearchable, unusable web archive? Define your collection: set parameters, and outline exactly what you will — and will not — collect. Don’t build something that your organization cannot commit to long term. Web archives cost money, and require labor — real, hands-on, consistent labor. And if your web collection is meant to mirror the community you serve, ask your community what they’d like to see in the collection. What websites represent the community? Where do your patrons turn for news? Where do your patrons post their creative work? Don’t be afraid to revise and rethink, either — web collections, like the web itself, aren’t meant to be stagnant.
What advice would you offer to people interested in entering this field?
I have some by-the-book advice, like: take one, or two — or, like, five — technologically-focused courses while you’re in school, and practice those skills — at whatever level possible — as your career unfolds. And if you’re in school, and you have the time and schedule flexibility, take a class or two that has nothing — nothing at all! — to do with your field of study: do it to challenge the way you think and behave, and do it to remember that your way of thinking — and your field’s way of thinking — isn’t the only way of thinking. Other advice? Read — academic journals, fiction, the newspaper, poetry! — as often as you can: on the train, for ten minutes before bed, over lunch. Ask questions, and look towards people who are — right now — where you’d like to be in five years. Understand your community, both as an information professional and as a member of that community. What do the people you serve need? With what do the people you serve struggle? Center your community, and center those who have been excluded, and marginalized, and oppressed. As a student, and as a professional: be considerate, and support your peers and colleagues. And keep learning.
Could you tell us about your role at StoryCorps?
I’m the Community Archivist at StoryCorps — which means several things. Much of my job, and day-to-day work, is quite technical in nature: I process, spot-check, and transfer digital interview files; I receive and review paperwork associated with StoryCorps interviews; and I work with interview metadata (like participant information, keywords, and interview descriptions). The StoryCorps collection is — by any standard — quite large: in thirteen years, StoryCorps employees have collected over sixty-five thousand interviews on the road and in our Booths, and our listeners and participants have used the StoryCorps App — StoryCorps.me — to record over one-hundred and fifteen thousand interviews. And each and every one of these files requires technical, archival care from all of the StoryCorps archivists and our partners at the Library of Congress. I do extensive work, too, with our community partners: I help interested organizations build and receive archival collections using StoryCorps audio, and assure that each partner understands how to care for their collection, which is entirely digital in nature. I also work closely with and train StoryCorps Facilitators, who are integral to the success of the organization: facilitators are the ones who sit in on our interviews, set up and monitor the interview equipment, take notes, and enter interview metadata. There’s always work to be done at StoryCorps, and so much of it involves listening to — and sharing the stories of, and learning from — people.
Are there any projects that you’re currently working on and excited about that you can share with us?
Yes! All of StoryCorps is hard at work on the development of the StoryCorps Public Archive — a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, that will make many full-length interviews from the StoryCorps collection available online, for free, to researchers, educators, and members of the public. It’s sure to be a wonderful collection, and we’re eager to share what we’ve been working on. Personally: I’m working with the fabulous folks over at Programming Historian to draw up a lesson on personal archiving in public libraries, complete with equipment lists and instruction guides and more! And, theoretically, amidst the rest, I’m graduating in May with my Master’s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s iSchool! One semester to go!