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Web Archiving in 2015 -- a Quick Redux of IIPC's General Assembly at Stanford

This past week saw the 2015 General Assembly of the IIPC, International Internet Preservation Coalition--probably the biggest week and biggest event of the year in the web archiving world. The IIPC has 50 members from 30 countries, and comprises the leading web archiving institutions in the world, including tons of national libraries, the Internet Archive, and a growing number of research institutions.

Here are the five key lessons that I am taking away from this year’s IIPC.  

More is More. Less is Less. Avoid Monocultures.

  1. “More is More. Less is Less. Avoid Monoculture.” Abby Smith Rumsey articulated the soul and mission of web archiving in 8 words during her Wednesday talk on Memory in the Digital Age. Speaking from her perspectives as an historian, a member of the NSF’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation, and as a longtime leader and practitioner in digital libraries, Abby outlined both the needs and opportunities for archiving the modern web. The essence of her talk (from my perspective): capture as much as possible, don’t over-invest in curation today (let future users make their own calls), demonstrate value, and get as many players as possible active in the effort.  

  2. APIs, APIs, APIs. The fundamentals of web archiving are now (pretty well) understood, and it’s a (somewhat) mature space. We now know enough to create standard definitions for interactions across the major functions of web archiving--selection, capture, preservation, indexing, playback, mining. Lets define these interactions formally via APIs; once we do, we’ll see all sorts of associated benefits. Institutional software stacks will be componentized, modular, and swappable allowing us to assemble best-of-breed systems. Archives and their associated functions will become interoperable--allowing for the reuse and exchange of content, software and services across institutions, time and place. Developers will be able to swarm an individual component (say playback with Open Wayback; crawling with Open Heretrix; indexing with solr) with the confidence it will plug in to their local stack.

    If there is a single opportunity for IIPC to advance the technology-scape supporting Web Archiving in the next year, it’s defining these community-standard APIs among layers of the end-to-end web archiving stack.

  3. It’s time to intentionally cultivate a community of Web Archiving developers. If each of the 50 institutions in the IIPC has .5 of a developer allocated to web archiving, that makes 25 FTE developers. If each site allocates 1 software engineer, that makes 50 developers. I don’t know what the average size of an IIPC member’s dev team is, but it’s a BIG POOL of talent, and one that collectively could get a LOT done if they work in concert. The seeds of a robust development community have been sown. The development of Open Wayback, while slow to pick up community traction at first, is now looks healthy and even thriving, with 10 committers from as many institutions.

    If there are two opportunities for IIPC to advance the technology-scape supporting Web Archiving in the coming year, the second is to foster a thriving, collaborative developer community engaged in building tools for web archiving--one that is intensely collaborative, and subscribes to best practices in open source, collaborative software development.

  4. Reaffirming the mission and focus of IIPC. This is the third and final year of the IIPC’s three year consortial agreement. Going into 2016 means the organization must renew the consortial agreement, and provides a rare chance to reaffirm its mission, specify current goals, and update its operating practices. This is a fantastic opportunity for IIPC members to double down on the areas of greatest value for advancing web archiving internationally. The IIPC Steering Committee is primed to take this on; I am very much looking forward to the next few months of discussions among the Steering Committee and members as we re-express the core mission and objectives of IIIPC for the next five years. Personally, I hope and expect that the objectives of tool development, training, advocacy and collaborative collecting/preservation/access remain the fundamental objectives of the organization.

  5. Networked archives are the future of archiving the ‘net. Brewster Kahle gave a provocative speech on the heels of Abby Smith Rumsey’s talk on Wednesday. In essence, he called for “collective collection building; distributed preservation; local/cloud-based access” for web archives. While there are a lot of details still to be sorted, I think Brewster has hit a key theme and need for web archives of the future--given the scale and nature of the Web, it’s no longer sufficient to think about global Web Archiving as a series of independent archives each pursuing its own selection, capture, preservation, access and use objectives. Rather, web archiving in the future needs to reflect the distributed nature of the very thing we’re seeking to preserve--a collective, distributed, networked effort to capture, archive and give access to the Web, with many, many players invested and specializing in the functions they do best. Scale and specialization are both watchwords here. APIs and Abby Smith Rumsey’s council (more is more; avoid monoculture) are also both critical here. This is going to be very interesting to observe in the next three to five years.

This was my first IIPC General Assembly, and overall I am impressed. The IIPC is a serious, substantial and dedicated group of practitioners. There is a broad front of international concern and engagement in preserving the Internet and its contents for future generations; at the same time, there are deep pockets of innovation and progress in advancing the state of the art in practice. For all the substance of IIPC in its current form, though, there needs to be MORE--the Internet is the largest, most significant, most far reaching, and most interconnected vehicle for human communication and history, EVER. Capturing its contents over time is critical to capturing the history, substance and technology of humanity.

IIPC is the vanguard for memory and research institutions in the world for capturing this critical content, defining the technology and policies and practices that will capture this critical period of humanity’s development. If there were ever a group and cause that merits national and international investment to capture a unique period of history, this is it. After this week, I’m happy to report that--as large and critical as the need is--IIPC seems like is in a unique position to help meet it, and define the history of the present and future.