If you’ve ever found yourself wondering about whether the idea of metadata really works, particular in the born digital context, then Greg Bak’s Not Meta Just Data is for you (Bak, 2016). Bak suggests that metadata beguiles us into thinking of our preservation systems in terms of primary and secondary data, which works to obscure the relationships we find (and create) in our data. He is interested in the ways that archivists and users of archives work to give expression to the archive. Bak uses a previous critique of metadata by Cunningham (2001) as a jumping off point to discuss a wide range of archival thinking (Appadurai & Mulder, 2003; Bastian, 2003; Hurley, 1994; Scott, 1966; Taylor, 1987) to make the case for incorporating ideas from social media into archives, and to dissolve some of our thinking around what counts as data and metadata in our systems:

… we need archival systems that allow our records to circulate into new contexts, with new uses and new users, even as they continue to accumulate new data points that document these new uses and users. Archives need to learn from social media data management, and not simply act as users of the “free” infrastructure of social networking services. We need to create systems that register and leverage the social worlds navigated by our records and our users not because of any fad or trend, but because this is a proven way of finding the meaning, and value, within superabundant digital information.

This idea resonates with me as we are about to embark on some research & design work in the Docuemtning the Now project to see how the DocNow application can help mediate conversations between archivists and users. We are hopeful that these conversations will help address the problem of consent in social media archiving, but also provide additional relational information like what Bak is describing.

We started with the idea, that others have had as well (Gossen, Demidova, & Risse, 2015; Hockx-Yu & Pitt, 2013; Risse, Dietze, Maynard, Tahmasebi, & Peters, 2011), of using social media as a way to discover web content for archives. There is certainly more work to do on this front, but we have a simple implementation of using social media as signal data (as my colleague Trevor Muñoz likes to call it) to locate web content in the current DocNow application. But what we are about to start looking at is how social media platforms (like Twitter) provide a space for archivists to communicate with content creators. Specifically thinking about the DocNow tool not just as read-only archiving tool that collects data from Twitter, but how it could operate as a type of Twitter client that is optimized for archivists to interact with record creators, and vice-versa?

If this gives you any ideas, or you have pointers to some of the relevant literature on this, particularly the idea of consent in social media, I would love to hear from you. Of course the literature around participatory archives is very relevant here. But I’m less interested in theoretical musings on the social archive, and would like to find specific case studies that foreground design questions that arise when social media platforms are used as a site for archival work, rather than incorporating ideas from social media (tagging, crowd sourcing, etc) into archival platforms.

Oh, and before I forget, Bak talks quite a bit about the Australian Series system, and what it gets right by thinking of metadata as part of the process of creating records. He mentions that Scott’s work anticipated some thinking that went into the design of databases, and points to Haigh (2009) for that discussion. I’m always on the lookout for pieces that connect archives with the history of computing, particularly from an STS perspective–so I’ll add that to the reading list…


Appadurai, A., & Mulder, A. (2003). Archive and aspiration. In Information is alive (pp. 14–25). NAi Publishers.
Bak, G. (2016). Not meta just data: Redefining content and metadata in archival theory and practice. Journal of Archival Organization, 13(1-2), 2–18.
Bastian, J. A. (2003). Owning memory: how a Caribbean community lost its archives and found its history. Libraries Unlimited.
Cunningham, A. (2001). Six degrees of separation: Australian metadata initiatives and their relationships with international standards. Archival Science, 1(3), 271–283.
Gossen, G., Demidova, E., & Risse, T. (2015). iCrawl: Improving the freshness of web collections by integrating social web and focused web crawling. In Proceedings of the joint conference on digital libraries. Retrieved from http://www.l3s.de/~gossen/publications/gossen _et _al _jcdl _2015.pdf
Haigh, T. (2009). How data got its base: Information storage software in the 1950s and 1960s. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 31(4), 6–25.
Hockx-Yu, H., & Pitt, M. (2013). Evaluating twittervane: Project final report (No. WAP035). British Library. Retrieved from http://www.netpreserve.org/sites/default/files/resources/ProjectFinalReport _Twittervane _Approved.pdf
Hurley, C. (1994). The australian (“series”) system: An exposition. In The records continuum: Ian Maclean and Australian Archives: First fifty years (pp. 150–172). Ancora Press. Retrieved from http://www.descriptionguy.com/images/WEBSITE/the-australian-(Series)-system.pdf
Risse, T., Dietze, S., Maynard, D., Tahmasebi, N., & Peters, W. (2011). Using events for content appraisal and selection in web archives. In.
Scott, P. (1966). The record group concept: a case for abandonment. The American Archivist, 29(4), 493–504.
Taylor, H. A. (1987). Transformation in the archives: technological adjustment or paradigm shift? Archivaria, 25, 12–28.