All Alone in A Crowd: Born Digital Content on Archive Websites

Crowdsourcing is a word that, in my experience, elicits equal parts excitement and trepidation.  It contains within it a potential new font of information, but also some erosion of whatever control a curator or institution may have.  Neither one of those is by definition a good or bad thing.  The archives that the class examined this week all have an element of crowdsourcing in them, though none have it in its purest form, such as you might see on a more open social media site.  So, for a few minutes, this blog will look at the wisdom, or lack thereof, generated by academics, historians, and thousands of internet strangers.


Some of the readings for this week talked about the daunting nature of the massive amount of responses that projects like these generate.  This is easily seen in many of the archives, where the descriptions for each item might be one line of text that often leaves out key background information.  I don’t say this to belittle the usefulness of all of these archived documents and memories, more to illustrate the impossibility of creating a good catalogue record for thousands of objects in an online archive, especially when the supervisor on the project may be unaware of how many submissions they will get or when the submissions will come in, and so is unable to truly plan their time or their labor force.

The issue of preservation also came up with me in terms of memory – as someone who was aware of the broad strokes of the shootings at Virginia Tech but less familiar with the details, I found that some parts of the archive could be hard to contextualize.  I did not see anywhere that provided more of a summary of the events, and often the captions for pictures (which may be user-submitted) referenced various places in a way that implied they had great significance, but did not explain further.  Again, this is an amazing archive that I found truly moving, but I think that this is an issue in compiling these archives from public memories of large events.  It seems like there is a flood of material available in the aftermath of the event, when the story is in the news, and more people are likely to know what it is and the details of it, but years later, this may not be the case.  The user submissions by people at the time, or later submissions from people who have a personal stake in the event are more likely to abbreviate details that would be second nature to them because the event is so fresh.  Obviously, it is not the job of submitters to give historical context to the event, but when something is even partially crowd-sourced, it is unlikely that, for many submissions, that job will be done by anyone else.


I don’t know much about copyright law, but reading these sites was one of the many times in my life when I have thought it would really benefit me to learn more about it.  It seems like the ownership of the submissions to this website – mostly photos is your typical digital-age complicated.  The April 16th Archive explicitly says that the copyright on all of the images is still owned by the content creator, but many of the posts also contain language that grants the site usage rights over it.  I realize that usage rights and copyright are different, and that an agreement like this is necessary for these types of sites to continue to function, but I also feel like sometimes agreements like this muddy the waters of ownership to a degree that is worrying.  I’ve seen multiple social media freak outs about the degree to which online platforms get usage rights to content that is posted on their sites – and some of these freak outs are completely warranted (like when media sites use images that people post in their advertising without compensation).  To me, it seems like any site that has a complicated relationship with the ownership of photos should present a plain text version, telling people what rights they maintain for their own work, and what they are giving away.  Some larger sites already do this, but I think that it would behove smaller sites to follow suit, since it does not cost much, and could help make this type of transparency more normalized

The other issue that came up for me with copyright was the identity of the creator.  In some cases, the “creator” was identified as the person who took the picture, and in others, as its subject.  This issue might be difficult to resolve when trying to sort through a lot of submissions, but from the little bit of copyright law that has been explained to me, the subject of the photo and the photographer have different rights in terms of use of that photo.  Beyond that, I think that it is important that if someone is having their face published as connected to a traumatizing event, there are a lot of situations where they should get a say in whether that is something that they want.

One last point – one of the most interesting things that I saw when I was looking at the September 11 Digital Archive and the April 16 Archive were that the description of the rights of the content creators on many of the pages were almost exactly the same across the two websites.  I guessed that this is because both are hosted by Omeka, and this is some sort of language that Omeka gives its users, since it didn’t seem fully like legalese, and I was able to find other duplications of the same language on other museum sites.  To me this is an issue of control – who should be deciding copyright issues?  Should it be the platform or the archive itself?