North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries recently debuted a free, web-based social media archives toolkit designed to help cultural heritage organizations develop social media collection strategies, gain knowledge of ways in which peer institutions are collecting similar content, understand current and potential uses of social media content by researchers, assess the legal and ethical implications of archiving this content, and develop techniques for enriching collections of social media content at minimal cost. Tools for building and enriching collections include NCSU’s Social Media Combine—which pre-assembles the open source Social Feed Manager, developed at George Washington University for Twitter data harvesting, and NCSU’s own open source Lentil program for Instagram—into a single package that can be deployed on Windows, OSX, and Linux computers.
“By harvesting social media data (such as Tweets and Instagram photos), based on tags, accounts, or locations, researchers and cultural heritage professionals are able to develop accurate historical assessments and democratize access to archival contributors, who would otherwise never be represented in the historical record,” NCSU explained in an announcement.
“A lot of activity that used to take place as paper correspondence is now taking place on social media—the establishment of academic and artistic communities, political organizing, activism, awareness raising, personal and professional interactions,” Jason Casden, interim associate head of digital library initiatives, told LJ. Historians and researchers will want to have access to this correspondence, but unlike traditional letters, this content is extremely ephemeral and can’t be collected retroactively like traditional paper-based collections.
“So we collect proactively—as these events are happening or shortly after,” Casden explained.
The toolkit is the culmination of the library’s “New Voices and Fresh Perspectives: Collecting Social Media” project, which began in 2014 with the support of a $25,000 EZ Innovation grant administered by the State Library of North Carolina, with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA).
Through November 2015, NCSU Libraries collected over 1.2 million tweets from over 380,000 Twitter accounts, as well as 29,000 Instagram photos and associated metadata from 18,000 Instagram accounts. The social media archives toolkit contains resources and information gathered as NCSU documented this effort.
“The goal was for it not just to be [a record of] ‘what did NC State do?’” said Brian Dietz, NCSU digital program librarian for special collections. Instead, from the beginning of the project, the library set out to build a collection of resources that “are available for other institutions to consider when trying to establish their own social media archiving programs. One of the things we know is that this is a relatively new area of work for libraries and archives, and a consequence is that there aren’t really ‘best’ or ‘good practices’” established for other libraries to follow when considering issues such as access to collected content, the ethics of doing the work, or long-term preservation of the content.
The resulting online toolkit contains an annotated bibliography of research on social media collection and preservation, an environmental scan of current archival programs, examples of how researchers are using social media data, surveys of cultural heritage organizations and archival researchers, and special sections on collection strategies and the legal and ethical implications of social media archiving programs.
“The tools that are needed to collect these materials are still not very accessible to a large percentage of the cultural heritage community,” Casden said. “Preservation practices are not well known, the legal and ethical guidelines are still a bit foggy—a lot of this is what we’re trying to work through both technically, and in terms of documentation of policies.”