The mission statement of the Library of Congress reads: “The Library’s mission is to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.”
Since its establishment by an act of Congress in 1800, the Library of Congress has become on of the foremost cultural institutions, acquiring and proudly offering a vast wealth of resources to the public which is unmatched anywhere else in the world. It is indeed the largest library collection on Earth with more than 144 million items, including: more than 33 million cataloged books and other print materials; more than 63 million manuscripts; North America’s largest rare books collection; and the world’s largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and sound recordings.
Last month the popular global social networking service, Twitter, donated to the Library its entire digital archive of public tweets (2006-present). Twitter reported the acquisition on its blog and the Library on its website. One asks: how does a potentially infinite collection of digital artifacts factor in to the Library’s stated mission of “preserving a universal collection of knowledge?”
Over 100 million users worldwide send more than 50 million “tweets” daily, so this extraordinary cultural database currently numbers in the billions and is continuously growing. The 140-character messages we publish every minute of every day provide an unparalleled barometer of the entire global human population at a specific moment in time over a period of time. Twitterers collectively produce an instantaneous snapshot of the world’s social and cultural milieu. Every tweet preserves the intimate details of one person’s thoughts about his/her status, of where s/he is and what s/he is doing; a whole day of tweets is his/her public bulletin board of firsthand information. Combined these bulletin boards offer a perfect composite depiction of the contemporary way of life across and through time and space.
Tech news website Ars technica acknowledged the Library of Congress’ “turn toward historicism” in their acquisition: “The idea is to better understand the context of a time and place, to understand the way that all kinds of people thought and lived…As twitter continues its march into the mainstream, the service really will offer a real-time, unvarnished look at what’s on people’s minds.”
By acquiring Twitter’s entire public archive, the Library of Congress recognizes these digital artifacts as one whole evolving body of work worthy of inclusion in its ongoing digital preservation project, the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. (Click here for the program’s history and initiatives since 2000.) Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said of the transfer: “The Library looks at this as an opportunity to add new kinds of information without subtracting from our responsibility to manage our overall collection. Working with the Twitter archive will also help the Library extend its capability to provide stewardship for very large sets of born-digital materials.”
What do you think of the Library’s acquisition of the world’s tweets? Do they deserve such “stewardship” of our species collective past and future digital heritage? Is the Twitter archive more or less “universal” than other types of cultural heritage? If UNESCO decides to recognize the universal value of digital heritage, would there possibly be such a thing as a World Heritage (Web)Site?
[Culture in Peril is now on Twitter @cultureinperil]