Pitching Web Archiving to your Institution: Where to Begin?

This post was written by guest blogger Andrea Belair, Archives and Special Collections Librarian at Union College in Schenectady, NY.

Does your organization engage in web archiving? Today, many organizations now collect websites in some capacity. Over the years, I think it’s become easier to make an argument that web content should be collected. Most of us, even the least tech-savvy of us, understand that web pages are not permanent and get taken down or deleted when not maintained.  Many hard lessons have already been learned by large amounts of content that has been lost overnight, a tweet deleted by its author, or a page that is no longer available on a site. Regularly, now, the public is pointed to the address of a website to get vital information, much to the detriment of those who might not have access to a computer; however, the website is the public record, the source of information. We have seen this recently with the COVID-19 epidemic and most information about it, as well as its vaccination. 

If you intend to make a pitch to start a web archiving program at your institution, of course, you need to consider your audience: What do they care about? More importantly, though, do you belong to a public or private institution? It is likely that your organization is creating web content, and, similarly, it’s likely that this web content can be considered institutional records of your organization. 

At a former job, during a meeting about web archiving, one attendee told me that I needed to take off my records management hat and put on my archivist hat. The university archivist came just after that statement, running a little late. Having missed the rest of the conversation, he sat down, and he stated, “This is really about records management.” In terms of collecting and archiving web content, there is the collecting side and an argument to be made there, and there is the side from the vantage point of institutional records. It can be hard to show scholarly uses for web collecting, although now it’s an easier case to make when you look at the amazing web collections of the Library of Congress, for example. However, if you’re pitching a web archiving program, think about your stakeholders. Chances are that if your stakeholders are, say, executive administration in a private college, you might want to reconsider your pitch if you focus on history, or some variation of history and why history is important. Stakeholders know that history is important, and executives know that, but they consider it the job of the library to take care of that and they are not really going to think that justifies more of a budget allocation. I recommend that, instead, you look at the requirements of your accrediting institution, if you are a private college. If you are a public college, look at your local, state and federal regulations and mandates on records. Web pages are official documents of the institution, and they often fall within mandated records retention schedules. For private colleges, it is very possible that the accrediting organization to which your institution belongs has records requirements as well, although I am not familiar with all accrediting institutions, unfortunately. If there is a legal mandate to be met, go that route. If there is an accrediting mandate to be met, go that route. 

It’s not that the case for history and its importance can never be made, however. If there is a new mission statement or vision statement at your institution, and you can connect it to your pitch, by all means: now is your chance. If there is an upcoming inauguration or similar major event, that is another opportunity, because we all want to make sure that this important event and person is written into history.