17 Days that Shook U.Va. -- Library, Course Aim to Preserve Event for Historic Record

July 25, 2012

Some University of Virginia staff and faculty have turned an eye toward scholarly opportunities presented by the tumultuous 17 days in June between President Teresa A. Sullivan's resignation and reinstatement.

Two professors will teach a course in the fall, "Documenting U.Va.'s Future: Oral History of the Ouster and Reinstatement," in which students will conduct long-form interviews for an oral history project while also exploring contemporary policy issues in higher education.

Meanwhile, a University Library team is hard at work cataloging items – physical and digital – for an archive that could benefit future scholars. Their experience capturing, in real time, thousands of tweets, online comments, blog posts and news articles has led to new methodologies and best practices suited to archiving 21st century communications.

In both cases, organizers say their purpose is to objectively capture and preserve an important period in University history that has broad implications for higher education.

"It's a teachable moment, as people keep saying, and I think it's a teachable moment about higher education policy issues, about the relationship between democracy and education, and about students' roles in their own civic life," said Walter Heinecke, an associate professor in the Curry School of Education and one of the professors teaching the course.

The Course

John Alexander, associate director of the Sciences, Humanities & Arts Network of Technological Initiatives, or SHANTI, will co-teach "Documenting U.Va.'s Future" with Heinecke, who specializes in qualitative research methods and educational policy studies.

The course, for which seats are still available, is listed under the Media Studies Department of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Students will interview members of the University community who were involved with the events surrounding Sullivan's resignation and reinstatement. Their interviews will be assembled into an oral history that will require students to both hone their interviewing and compositional talents as well as their analytical and critical thinking skills, Alexander said.

"A big part of this is letting the students really experience what oral history is about and how to approach it," Alexander said. "They'll also learn how to develop a script that works, how to establish a rapport with the subject that makes the subject comfortable with telling their story, and then how to capture that story and reflect on it."

The students will help select the participants and seek their permission, and might ask anyone from top administrators and current or former members of the Board of Visitors to students and local community members, Heinecke said.

The students will also frame the project in the context of Thomas Jefferson's thoughts on the role of public education and the challenges and issues currently facing higher education generally, he said.

The results will then be added to the materials being collected by the library for the University archive, Alexander said..

The Library

Shortly after Sullivan's resignation, U.Va. Library staff realized they needed to capture the deluge of news coverage, social media commentary and University communication that ensued.

The nature of the event – and the large degree to which the dialogue surrounding it was digital – required the library to adopt new methods, said Bradley Daigle, director of digital curation services.

"Historically, University archives take a very different role in these activities. We play sweeper, following behind the events and gathering information," he said.

But the temporary nature of much of the online communication demanded a quicker response. The Scholars' Lab set up a site where visitors could upload their videos, pictures and audio files, and also began cataloging and capturing tweets, blog posts and news coverage.

The prevalence of the #UVA hashtag on Twitter – which categorizes the short, 140-character-or-less messages – required vigilance and new methods for cataloging them, said Gretchen Gueguen, a digital archivist in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

Because Twitter allows for the harvesting of only the past 1,500 tweets under a given hashtag – and because the #UVA hashtag was filling up that quota about every five hours at one point – Gueguen had to constantly capture the new crop. She also set up an automated process, but the sheer volume of tweets caused it to periodically crash.

As of this week, she'd collected about 80,000 tweets and cataloged 263 online news articles, 123 blog posts and 56 videos. In total, 500 to 700 different types of Web objects are either cataloged or saved, running the gamut from parody Twitter accounts that were quickly taken down to news articles that are likely to remain online for a while, Geuguen said.

The library was also on the spot at the rallies and other events to gather physical items for the archive. Edward Gaynor, head of development collection and description for special collections, has a few hundred items in his office.

"The vast bulk of the items are signs and materials that were generated for the rallies," he said. The physical collection also includes items such as printed newspapers that covered the events.

Though the University has seen large-scale protests and rallies before, none had come close to generating the same amount of artifacts, especially considering the digital contribution, Gaynor said. A student strike in the 1970s, for example, generated some materials kept in the University archives, but, he said, "There's nothing comparable to having 80,000 tweets."

Now, library staff members are sorting through the cataloged items and working out methods to best preserve them for future scholars. "Essentially, we've cast our nets as widely as possible and now we're hauling in our catch to see what we have," Daigle said.

The exercise has also been a case study for the best ways to capture and preserve such items, Daigle said. For example, the library is still examining usage rights for sites such as Facebook. The user agreement grants rights to the poster. So if the owner of a particular page allows the library to catalog its contents, what does that mean for comments posted there by others?

"Are we going to seek permission from each commenter? Are we going to redact the names? Those are the types of issues that we're dealing with right now," Daigle said.

In the short term, the library plans to set up an exhibit on the events for students returning in the fall.

– by Rob Seal