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March 20, 2017


March 20, 2017 | By | No Comments


I attended the event described in the article above. The general purpose of this series of events is to preserve scientific environmental knowledge that is supported by the US federal government and is therefore at risk of loss under the Trump administration. The last sentence of the article best captures the specific purpose of the Toronto event: to create a “prototype” for a process that its organizers neologized as an “archivathon” (a Google websearch of the word doesn’t return any uses outside of the context of this project; a Google ngram doesn’t plot any uses). Around 80-100 people volunteered at the event, which occupied the entire floor of the School of Information’s information library. The volunteers included a core group of organizers including faculty from the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania, and people like myself, i.e. those responding to the organizers’ call for volunteers. Many of the volunteers were vocally uncomfortable with the presence of communications media, both conventional and social, but also said that their presence was necessary (the media being what got us there, anyway).


The organizers asked us to split into three working groups: 1) a group of people doing the heavy lifting of going through the EPA website in advance of a webcrawler program, once the program had been written; 2) a group called “hacker’s corner,” which was geared towards writing the webcrawler and split off into its own separate room; and 3) a group oriented towards overseeing the logistics and structure of the data processing that was occurring in the information library that day. Additionally, the organizers also asked that a small number of people create two ‘floating’ teams of volunteers to go between the three working groups in order to document their work – one team via social media, and one via ethnography. I decided to take ethnographic notes, documenting volunteers’ experiences with the archivathon. I spent most of my time listening to people in the third group.


The third group divided into three subgroups. One included some of the lead organizers, each managing specific logistical tasks; this end of the table was fairly quiet. The other two groups included those who were creating a schema for an inventory of the EPA website. The first was tasked with creating an inventory of the EPA website, and the second with creating a rubric for libraries and other organizations to use in order to identify and prioritize materials for digital preservation in case federal support is cut. The inventory group worked mostly in pairs, each taking a specific section of the EPA website to map out conceptually (again, the character of the Toronto event was preliminary). The rubric group worked as a whole. Its members were heritage institution workers and/or digital humanities specialists, and seemed familiar with the interests and limitations of the people who would be using the rubric. Balancing ease and efficacy in the use of the rubric was an overarching theme here. Listening to each group offered different, albeit brief views into the practice of cultural heritage informatics in a sharply political context.

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