PhD Research

An Abstract In Flux

Since the mid-1990s institutions such as national libraries and the Internet Archive have been ‘archiving the Web’ through the harvesting, collection and preservation of ‘web objects’ (e.g. websites, web pages and social media) in web archives (Lyman, 2002). In recent years, a ‘community’ has emerged around conferences and workshops, ‘hackathons’ and ‘datathons’, international research groups and social media streams – all dedicated to web archiving. Much of the focus of this community has been on the continued development of technologies and standards for web collection development (Hockx-Yu, 2014), with increased attention on facilitating the scholarly use of web archives (Dougherty et al., 2010; Dougherty and Meyer, 2014; Meyer et al., 2011).

This research will take a step back to consider the place of web archives in light of ‘the archival turn’ and emergent questions over the ever-expansive role of the archive in everyday life. First coined by Stoler (2002), ‘the archival turn’ denotes a shift from the ‘archive as source’ to the ‘archive as subject’, signalling wide-ranging epistemological questions concerning the role of the archive (and the archivist) in shaping and legitimising knowledge and particular ways of knowing. From this perspective, the mechanisms and circumstances surrounding the production of web archives are fundamental to understanding them as ‘new forms of social data’ (Lupton, 2015, p.31). This research proposes to re-situate web archives as places of knowledge and cultural production in their own right, by implicating both the web archivist and technologies in the shaping of the ‘politics of ephemerality’ [1] that lead to the creation, maintenance and use of web archives. In short: how does web archival practice (the who, what and how) change what will be known about the Web?

This study will identify key underlying assumptions about what the Web is (e.g. a ‘Web of Documents’, ‘an abstract information space’), what of the contemporary Web is (or isn’t) being archived, and the relative affordances of web archives for understanding the mechanisms that led to their creation. Drawing on critical approaches to information, Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Web Science, this research will engage with the performativity of web archiving, the practices of selection, collection and classification as forms of knowledge production, and the possible implications for a socio-technical understanding of web archives.

Notes and References

[1] Taylor (2003) uses this to describe the power and politics involved in the practice of preservation – making the archive the ‘liminal zone’ where memories, files and objects are retrieved, as well as lost (Zeitlyn, 2012).

Dougherty, M. and Meyer, E. T. Community, Tools, and Practices in Web Archiving: The State-of-the-Art in Relation to Social Science and Humanities Research Needs. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 65(11):2195–2209, 2014.

Dougherty, M., Meyer, E. T., Madsen, C., van den Heuvel, C., Thomas, A., and Wyatt, S. Researcher Engagement with Web Archives State of the Art. Technical report, JISC, London, 2010.

Hockx-Yu, H. Access and Scholarly Use of Web Archives. Alexandria: The Journal of National and International Library and Information Issues, 25(1-2):113–127, 2014,

Lupton, D. Digital Sociology. Routledge, London, 2015.

Lyman, P. Archiving the World Wide Web. In Building a National Strategy for Preservation: Issues in Digital Media Archiving, pages 38–51. Council on Library and Information Resources and the Library of Congress, April 2002,

Meyer, E. T., Thomas, A., and Schroeder, R. Web Archives: The Future(s). Technical report, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, June 2011,

Stoler, A. L. Colonial archives and the arts of governance. Archival Science, 2(1-2):87–109, 2002,

Zeitlyn, D. Anthropology in and of the Archives: Possible Futures and Contingent Pasts. Archives as Anthropological Surrogates. Annual Review of Anthropology, 41(1):461–480, 2012,