Do Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites have content worthy of scholarly research?
UCLA Library thinks so, and it is not alone. Its new Digital Ephemera Project (DEP), backed by a $3.4 million grant from the Arcadia Fund, is aimed at collecting and preserving ephemeral content, including information from social networking sites, in order to gather the latest on events unfolding today in the Middle East, with the overarching goal of making that information openly accessible to anyone anywhere.
"The challenge that many librarians face with social media is that it's here today and gone tomorrow," said UCLA University Librarian Gary E. Strong.
A man works on a Toshiba computer during anti-government demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Social networking and the Internet played an important role in the Egyptian Revolution.
The digital information found on social media sites, which can range from the firsthand experiences of activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to strategies of grassroots organizations, is considered ephemeral because it isn't "something that is published and then kept somewhere," explained Strong. "This stuff is volatile — it exists and then disappears."
But archiving such information does not mean that UCLA Library will be collecting every Twitter Tweet as the Library of Congress recently announced it would do, Strong cautioned.
"Our role isn't to preserve the world's culture," said the head of the UCLA Library system. "Our role is to bring together, preserve and make accessible those things that are most interesting to students and faculty."
Currently, library technologists are working with faculty who have amassed digital content as part of their research process and have turned it over to UCLA Library to preserve it and make it accessible to other scholars.
Research in the Digital Age
While a published article or a book on the Arab Spring may be years in the making, the digital library collection maintained by the library's DEP will give faculty and students access to born-digital primary sources and information for research in real time.
"We're trying to enable the dot-connecting that students and faculty really need," said Sharon Farb, associate university librarian for collection management and scholarly communication. "We know when we're doing research there are resources and pieces of information in other places we can't see, but just can't get at them for various reasons."
Therefore, instead of having to travel to a library in Egypt to read an activist's journal, individuals will eventually be able to access that content digitally from the comfort of an Internet connection.
One significant advantage of working with digital content, explained Todd Grappone, associate university librarian for digital initiatives and information technology, is that it alleviates the tedious searches that scholars have had to endure to do their research.
Say, for example, a scholar is studying a collection of 1,000 letters. To find a few key pieces of information, that scholar might have to read every letter ― a daunting task. "But if you have a whole body of emails," said Grappone, "you can use the benefits of technology to do things like text-mining."
Using text-mining, scholars can input digital texts into software that can perform all kinds of textual analyses that would otherwise be tremendously time-consuming to do. Entire bodies of digital text instantly become searchable with the stroke of a few keys. Using digital tools, a researcher can obtain a statistical breakdown of the usage of every word or phrase, or a comparison of textual content across hundreds of works.
A social network for academic institutions
"What is exciting to me," said Strong, "is the whole arena of what we can do with digital media. All of the artifacts of our collection that traditionally have sat in vaults and special collections can now be made accessible to a much larger audience instead of just a few scholars."
But beyond allowing individuals broad-based access to the UCLA Library’s archives, Strong and his colleagues at the library want to take this unprecedented accessibility to the next level.
UCLA Library’s goal essentially is to build a kind of academic social network, where partnering libraries and academic institutions can reciprocally share access to each other's content via the Internet.
"It's about us partnering with libraries around the world in a way that makes their collections visible," explained Grappone. "While I've worked on international digital library projects in the past, they ultimately failed because of a lack of vision on intellectual property rights and sharing of access. [They were] focused more on institutional needs rather than on a broader vision of research."
UCLA Library's approach innovatively pushes boundaries by harnessing digital information’s massive potential, opening up vast possibilities for the preservation and dissemination of information globally.
"We're kind of the Johnny Appleseed of the digital library," added Grappone. But instead of apple trees, "what we will leave in our wake will be a lot of digital libraries that are open and accessible."
And as new and cutting-edge as the UCLA Library's Digital Ephemeral Project is, Strong is quick to point out that the project's vision and goals fundamentally tie into the long-term role of what a library traditionally is and does.
"Everybody thinks this is new and exciting and happening right now ― and it is ― but libraries have always been about collecting a record of what's going on right now," Strong explained.