Tweets: What We Might Learn From Mundane Details.

Written on: April 16, 2010 | 7 Comments

Have you heard the news?  This week, the Library of Congress announced that they are acquiring the digital archive of public tweets.  On April 14, @librarycongress tweeted, “Library to acquire ENTIRE Twitter archives — All public tweets, ever, since March 2006!”  Congratulations, Library of Congress.

In the world of electronic records, this is a historic announcement.  In my first post, I said “electronic records are now a fundamental part of our documentary record.”  The donation of billions of tweets to the Library of Congress is a profound example of the changing fabric of our records.

You might wonder why the National Archives did not acquire the tweets.  Our primary purpose is to acquire, preserve, and make available for research the most valuable records of the Federal Government.  Because tweets aren’t government records (although tweets of federal agencies can be), the Twitter archive is much better served by the Library of Congress as a cultural institution.  At the National Archives, we are working with over 250 Federal agencies and their components to identify and schedule Federal records, some of these most certainly are tweets.  Our records appraisal process identifies those records that are valuable enough to be permanently preserved.

There’s a common misconception that the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress are one in the same.  This probably stems from the fact that as institutions we have similar missions.  Here are just a few differences:

  • The National Archives was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 to centralize federal record keeping; The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 as a reference library for Congress.
  • The National Archives is part of the Executive Branch; the Library is part of the Legislative Branch (remember the “of Congress” part of their name).
  • The head of the National Archives is the Archivist of the United States (AOTUS); the head of the Library is the Librarian of Congress.
  • At the National Archives you can see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights, collectively known as the Charters of Freedom; At the Library of Congress you can see Jefferson’s library, the Gutenberg Bible, and the 1507 Waldseemueller map (the map that first named America).

nara-loc-pic

As Americans we are very fortunate to have multiple institutions that are concerned with preservation of our national treasures.  At the National Archives, we are thinking about the importance of preserving electronic records and making sure we aren’t losing our virtual memory.  This summer, I will issue a NARA Bulletin that will give Federal agencies guidance about their use of Twitter and other web 2.0 services.

Twitter is not for everyone.  If you are anything like me, you don’t really care what someone had for breakfast.  However, I do think that we need to recognize the potential power of the mundane details of our lives and what they might say about our culture.

I’m reminded of the book “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812″ by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.  Martha Ballard’s diary entries were not thought of has having much historical significance.  Previous scholars had referred to her diaries as “trivial and unimportant.”  However, Ulrich says, “Yet it is in the very dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard’s book lies.”  Martha faithfully kept her record for more than 27 years, but was not an introspective writer.  Martha Ballard’s entries in her diary read like 18th century tweets.

“Cloudy mourn.  Clear at noone.  I came home.  Find my famely well.  Mr. Ballard gone to Winslow.”

“Clear morn.  I pulld flax the fornon.  Rain afternoon.  I am very much fatagud.  Lay on the bed & rested.  The two Hannahs washing.  Dolly weaving.  I was called to Mrs. Claton in travil at 11 O Clok Evening.”

Ulrich masterfully creates a portrait of Martha Ballard’s life from the cryptic entries (Martha doesn’t always stay within 140 characters).  The details shed light on Martha’s life, medical practices of the day, and society in the early part of our country’s history.  Ulrich says, “For her, living was to be measured in doing.  Nothing was trivial.”

You never know what you are going to find in the details.  I’m reminded of a collection in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke that was originally catalogued as “The Papers of John Emory Bryant.”  This collection contained his records as an abolitionist, Union Officer, and Freedman’s Bureau agent.  A student researcher discovered his wife Emma’s 1873 letters in the collection.  The letters described her specific medical problems and visits to the doctor.  It was a trove of information about early gynecological treatment that would not have been discovered without that student’s citizen archivist activities.  The details of Emma’s life have helped us further our understanding of medical practices of the time.

What will historians be able to glean from our tweets?

We can’t be sure, but it will probably be very interesting.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has been using campaign documents to tweet about JFK’s Presidential run in 1960, allowing us to follow, learn, and relive some of the historic campaign.  Maybe in the future there will be interest in reliving some important moments in Federal and Presidential tweets.  When we are ready, they’ll be here in the National Archives.

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7 Responses to “Tweets: What We Might Learn From Mundane Details.”

  1. christian said:

    Thank you for this well-written and clear blogpost.

    One of the things I’m wondering about is how context of the tweets is handled by the Library of Congress. No doubt tweets are very interesting for historians, just like Martha Ballard’s diary entries are. However, the latter are different from tweets, because they lack interaction. Twitter is not so much of a simple diary, as it is a social network, so many tweets are actually replies on other ones. Also a diary lacks hyperlinks, which tweets often do have (shortened ones even). I haven’t looked into all the information of the Library of Congress yet, but how is context being preserved to keep the meaning of the tweets intact?

    I’ve written on my blog about this subject as well, in Dutch though. My main point is questioning whether we should be happy with keeping all of the public tweets. It seems a bit like preserving also the conversations that go around in bars, for example. Would we like that? Interesting for historians as well, but should we preserve/keep everything, simply because we can and because it might be interesting for historical research? I wonder where this passes privacy online.


    (April 18, 2010 at 9:57 am)

  2. Ed said:

    “Twitter is not for everyone. If you are anything like me, you don’t really care what someone had for breakfast.”

    I agree. But there are indeed statements in the public time which paint the scenes of today.

    And there is a tremendous amount of information sharing on Twitter,
    which further colors in the culture of the day, (such as posting links to this very site).


    (April 19, 2010 at 5:53 pm)

  3. Dan Knauth said:

    Reading diary entries of historical persons is certainly interesting; so is eavesdropping. Diaries are distinctly different from entries on twitter. They are normally private until the person keeping the diary dies, can be destroyed by the person or a relative rather than published, and generally can be authenticated through handwriting, etc. Twitter accounts can and have been hacked.

    Archiving public discourse might be legally permissible, but it seems to me that even in public conversation there can be an expectation of privacy. Some state laws make it unlawful to record conversations without the consent of all parties. It is a bit disturbing to me that the decision to archive twitter communications was apparently made without legislative consideration of privacy concerns. DOJ just dropped a request for archived emails from yahoo without a subpoena (http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-20002722-38.html), is the Library of Congress planning to step in?


    (April 19, 2010 at 6:11 pm)

  4. Vincent said:

    Thank you for the well articulated background of the National Archives and it’s purpose. Your visionary thinking about virtual content and how it must be archived is a testament to your deep understanding of research and how technology is playing an ever more important (and sometimes not obvious) role.


    (April 20, 2010 at 8:51 am)

  5. Kim said:

    I agree with Christian and Dan.

    *How is one going to know down the road how all the tweets interact and with all the dead links, how can one tell the real significance of all these tweets?

    *What about privacy? Retroactively deciding to save and archive all public tweets for all time from all places seems to violate the privacy policy that everyone who signed up agreed on. No one told the folks in 2006 that four years later their public tweets would be kept for gov’t record.

    *What about the international community? Don’t you think some other nations might have a problem if they knew that their citizens’ tweets were being recorded and collected by the U.S.??


    (April 21, 2010 at 8:27 am)

  6. David Ferriero said:

    I want to thank each of you for your comments and concerns. I think it’s an important topic to engage on, especially in regards to privacy concerns and preservation concerns around the social nature of tweets. There are a lot of questions for the Library of Congress to consider, but overall this seems like a fundamental step in the right direction for electronic records. The implications are not fully known, but certainly there are interesting times ahead.

    Although I cannot speak to the concerns the international community may have, I am reminded of the important role tweets recently played in international events, like Iran’s Twitter Revolution last summer. It seems that the cultural and political implications of tweets might outweigh concerns over whether tweets are really worth saving.


    (April 22, 2010 at 4:32 pm)

  7. dhika said:

    “… even in public conversation there can be an expectation of privacy.”

    I think this is an important point. Does the Library of Congress mean to document every tweet around the world? What about people who have decided to protect their tweets, allowing only people whom they’ve approved to follow their tweets?

    Perhaps taking a part in social networking and the internet requires us to terminate all expectations of privacy.


    (April 23, 2010 at 3:06 am)