Digital Archives and Political Legacies: Witll the Obama Corpus Stand the Test of Time?

paper, specified "short paper"
  1. 1. Elizabeth Losh

    William and Mary, United States of America

Work text
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DH 2022

Digital Archives and Political Legacies: Will the Obama Corpus Stand the Test of Time?

Short Abstract:

Drawing on extensive interviews with archivists and digital strategists associated with the domain developed during the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama (2009-2017), as well as primary research in archival collections, this presentation explores how attempting to preserve a large and important digital archive for posterity can both solidify and undermine a political legacy.

Longer Description:

The enormous treasure trove of digital materials associated with the first Black president of the United States included text from hundreds of speeches and executive orders, video and sound files, scrapes of social media postings, and a vast repository of structured data available in various open formats. This bounty of digital information would obviously be of interest to future historians, political scientists, rhetoricians, media scholars, researchers in Black studies, and scholars in science and technology studies. Archivists at the National Archives, Internet Archive, and Library of Congress seemed to be ready to spring into action to preserve it all, beginning with harvesting materials from eyewitnesses to Obama’s historic inauguration and ending with high-profile releases of tidy zipped .csv files from the POTUS and FLOTUS Twitter accounts after the transfer of power to his Republican successor had been completed. Yet behind the scenes, the story of preserving a political legacy is much more complex, particularly when issues about personal privacy, national security, the ownership of intellectual property, and platform governance come into play. This presentation draws on extensive field research done in Washington D.C. – including interviews with digital designers and strategists who managed both the front and the back end of Obama’s communication infrastructure –as well as archival research in both spaces for born digital materials and traditional documentary evidence from the written record.

This presentation also discusses how political legacies of interest to digital humanists might be eroded with attention to comparative case studies from government records of world leaders from the UK, France, and Germany. It also looks at how a digital legacy exists in a larger rhetorical and political historical context. For example, the Trump administration was quick to take down many public records made digitally available in the Obama era and even removed records about troop mobilization that had been posted during the pre-Obama Bush era of Republican political control. This context involves having digital humanists consider issues about personalization and surveillance, as the Obama administration reversed longstanding cookie policies from the Bush and Clinton White Houses. At the same time as official digital archiving practices might be noteworthy, it is also important to acknowledge the labor of DIY archivers and hacktivists, such as the maintainer of the Trump Twitter Archive. Finally, this presentation will dramatize the importance of reconstructing missing digital objects of study, such as the White House website designed for would-be president Hillary Clinton, which is not available to researchers and may become irretrievably lost without a clear mandate for preservation. This lively, provocative, and media-rich short presentation by a scholar of DH with a two-decade record of deep involvement in the field should be of interest to many attendees at DH2022.

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2022
"Responding to Asian Diversity"

Tokyo, Japan

July 25, 2022 - July 29, 2022

361 works by 945 authors indexed

Held in Tokyo and remote (hybrid) on account of COVID-19

Conference website:

Contributors: Scott B. Weingart, James Cummings

Series: ADHO (16)

Organizers: ADHO