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Documenting Ferguson

12.10.2014-Meredith Evans headshot James Byard / WUSTL Photo

Meredith Evans is an associate university librarian at Washington University Libraries. She leads the Department of Special Collections, which includes the Film and Media Archive, Manuscripts, the Modern Graphic History Library, Preservation, Rare Books, and University Archives. Evans earned a Masters of Library Science from Clark Atlanta University, a Masters of Public History at North Carolina State University, and a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Can you briefly describe the Documenting Ferguson project?

Documenting Ferguson is a project of Washington University Libraries in St. Louis. It is a collaborative, community-driven digital repository to preserve both local and national history surrounding the police killing of teenager Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown’s death inspired a multitude of responses and as a Missouri cultural organization in an institution of higher learning it was important that our library have a role in documenting related events as they unfolded. In addition to the digital repository, the university created WashU Voices for the university community to share and reflect on these events, which includes a variety of material, from officially sanctioned news stories to deeply personal blog posts.

The Documenting Ferguson project team includes staff from the libraries, faculty from the Center for the Humanities, and staff from the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. Powered by Omeka, an open source web-publishing platform, WashU Voices allows individuals to contribute digital audio and video material from mobile devices as well as computers. To simplify the submission process, the Documenting Ferguson team established a set of technical criteria—not editorial—for approval of content and set up guidelines addressing everything from file specifications to copyright.

Aided by word of mouth and social media, news about the project spread, and submissions came in quickly. By October 2014, the team had approved more than 300 files and made them available for public viewing. There are now over 500 files in the repository and we continue to receive submissions. This repository is driven by the participants, which sets it apart from what is provided by media outlets and makes it almost more significant. Although we have not assessed the demographics of contributors we are hopeful that the initial submissions were from those actively involved in local events and/or from residents of St. Louis and the surrounding area.

This repository is uncensored and “uncurated” web-based material that will be permanently stored and accessible to the public. The submissions are also semi-anonymous—only an email address is required and recorded. The contributor can decide whether to add more description or not. Through speaking engagements and interviews in local media outlets, including NPR, we have been able to secure more materials. There are photographs that reflect activism—protests, murals, clean up, and reconciliation; there are creative works—art, music, and poetry; and there are materials not directly related to the Brown case—including a zine dedicated to black women who have been killed by law enforcement.

What are the benefits or limitations of archival digital-born content?

Collecting digital-born content in the moment is difficult; preserving it is more difficult, but necessary. Traditional archiving often means that materials that document people, places, events are collected much later than when they are created. The benefit of digital collections is the ease and immediacy of access. Documenting Ferguson was created as the events unfolded, and we received submissions immediately. We don’t know whether we will be able to deliver this exact content ten years from now. Although great strides have been made in digital preservation, it is still in its infancy, and there is not a viable alternative medium for preservation. It is not practical to transfer digital content to paper. The size and pixels would be inconsistent and, perhaps, illegible because participants are not limited to size and dpi when uploading content. Also, descriptions of each item are in a separate compartment of the repository and would have to be printed out and matched to each printed item. This practice would be ineffective and time consuming.

How do archivists sort and catalog the digital data?

Digital data is cataloged similarly to print data. In addition to noting who created what, when and how, we document the versions and devices used to create the digital content to inform the best ways to provide constant access. We also add subject headings and descriptions so researchers can find the content.

Is there any attempt to verify the veracity of Twitter accounts? How do archivists treat Twitter data when it is being archived?

Regarding the Ferguson Project, I support the initiatives of Ed Summers and Bergis Jules, who have been saving Twitter feeds. Open source tools such as Social Feed Manager also allow users to capture and save Twitter feeds. However, Twitter has rules for usage rights that must be considered. Twitter feeds are available for purchase as public data. If a Twitter user has deleted their account it is no longer be available for purchase. However, only the person/organization that purchases the data can use it, and they can only access the data from an IP-controlled computer at the location of the purchase. With these restrictions in mind, librarians and archivists encourage Twitter users to archive their own accounts so that they are available to donate as a data set. We’re exploring the best methods to receive donations and creating tools to provide access so that social media data can be curated and accessible effectively. We are in the beginning stages of digital data preservation, and we work closely with other archivists and researchers to determine the best ways to collect, store, and provide access to tweets.

Studying hashtags and extracting media attachments shows the transition of the death of Michael Brown from a local tragedy to a national social movement. Tweets capture the chronology of events because they often identify feelings and actions of witnesses, activists, organizers, and agitators in real time. In the same way that digital data is useful for marketers, it is useful for archivists who are assessing and researching public views, events, current trends and popular topics.

Have any historians begun using the collection yet?

We have had submissions by faculty from different disciplines. Based on reference queries received, I know it is being used. Use varies from examples in presentations to examinations of event timelines. I know of two faculty members—one in the Art department and one in Gender and Women’s Studies—who have used images from the collection to spark discourse about Civil Rights and visual literacy.

The library staff struggles with marketing the collection and has often discussed whether or not the community trusted our institution enough to submit freely. Over the past six months we have been engaged with other methods of data collection regarding the events surrounding Michael Brown’s death. Several oral history projects are being conducted in collaboration with faculty and students, and we recognize the need to gather and preserve Twitter feeds, which were the most popular social media reactions and updates. We are partnering with other universities to create a suite of open-source tools to enable the collection, preservation, visualization, and analysis of vast quantities of digital social media content generated by the new wave of social activism, storytelling, and community documentation.

We are also beginning to assess the use and reasons for submission. We are considering surveying those who have uploaded content to see if this repository is valuable to the community. As project committee members attend programs and meetings we have asked people if they have or would submit content, why and why not. We have identified technical barriers that seem to have hindered use of the site, which are being corrected, but many anecdotal responses suggest that people simply didn’t know about the project. The low visibility initiated the development of a marketing strategy that would include radio ads. The new marketing plan would also include going into community centers—libraries, churches, stores—to help people upload content from their phones. We continue to rely on grassroots efforts like word of mouth to encourage submissions. Documenting Ferguson is a community collection that remains a part of the library. We continue to support it and welcome additional materials.