Zeega Imagines New Forms of Digital Libraries and Archives

    by Jesse Shapins
    October 12, 2011

    Since the founding of Zeega, one of the primary areas in which we’ve been working is the radically changing domain of libraries and archives. In the digital age, we believe libraries and archives pose one of the most exciting opportunities for re-imagining the ecosystem of public knowledge production and sharing.

    We see the questions posed by the future of libraries and archives to be intimately intertwined with the questions of who will own our digital future. In particular, it’s our concern that what we see emerging is a model of the web dominated by private companies that provide an all-encompassing experience within a single interface (e.g., Facebook) and a series of devices that have gatekeepers that manage access (e.g., iTunes Store). This future of the Internet is at odds with the web’s history of generativity, as Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Law at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has pointed out.

    Our vision is a hybrid system where private and noncommercial interests coexist, with a user’s “bill of rights” as a foundation governing ownership of one’s own data and an alternative networked commons of major repositories governed by noncommercial, public interest entities.


    experimenting with new models

    Toward these aims, we have been developing two Zeega projects that experiment with new models of digital libraries and archives in partnership with metaLAB (at) Harvard, a research center at the Berkman Center.

    The first project is extraMUROS, which provides a series of discovery and curatorial tools that allow users to easily access and create their own collections from libraries, museums, heritage institutions and social media sites from across the web. These interfaces are being integrated with Zeega’s core editing and publishing features, thus enabling the full spectrum of use from collection to storytelling. Traditionally, the processes of collection have been conceived as separate from curation and publishing. We’re designing Zeega as both a tool for bringing together media of all sorts, from all places, coupled with a series of tools for inventing new forms of storytelling using this material.


    From the beginning, one of the potential applications we’d imagined for this suite of tools was the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), a wonderfully ambitious project that aims to create a centralized (yet networked) online repository of our cultural and scientific record. Recently, extraMUROS was selected as one of six projects to be showcased at a national plenary on Oct. 21 where the public can experience the best ideas and models submitted to the DPLA Beta Sprint (an open call for code and concepts defining how the DPLA should operate).

    While books are vital to the future of libraries, we believe that in an increasingly audiovisual world, it is essential that libraries also play a major role in making available innovative tools for interpreting society’s textual and audiovisual past, present and future. We feel that extraMUROS and Zeega can be particularly powerful in helping the DPLA forge alliances between cultural heritage institutions of all types and scales, allowing citizen scholars, teachers, local historical societies, public libraries, schools, colleges, museums and libraries to form an interconnected web of shared knowledge. Moreover, we feel that these tools and the DPLA in general can be a vital resource for journalists and media-makers of all kinds.


    extraMUROS animates archives like this lantern slide of Yosemite National Park. (Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University.)

    While extraMUROS has helped us to imagine how Zeega might contribute to a Digital Public Library of America, we have been exploring how the platform might be used to create digital archives that serve as public forums for processing cultural memory following major events. We have been working with the Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies at Harvard and partners internationally to build a Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters.

    preserving records

    The aim of the project is to collect, preserve, and make accessible as much of the digital record of the disasters as possible, to enable scholars and a wide public audience in the disaster area, in Japan, and around the world to understand these events and their effect. Materials collected and made accessible through this archive range from local and national government websites, to individual blogs, websites of news organizations, NGOs and relief organizations, to tens of thousands of photographs and video or audio recordings, to publicly accessible social media such as Facebook or Twitter.

    We believe that the records preserved will be an important resource both in the near term as well as long into the future, for those who experienced these events as well as scholars and policy makers.

    In the digital age, archives are no longer simply storage facilities for future generations, but are active public spaces immediately upon instantiation. Fundamental to this new paradigm is the reconfiguration of the archive as a living and dynamic place. A digital archive can be called into existence immediately following a major event. Its content is consistently expanding. Its material is given greater meaning through new information about the data in the archive (metadata) derived from the public’s interaction with the archive itself.

    The opportunities, and challenges, of this new state of the archive are particularly acute in the context of major events such as Japan’s 2011 disasters, as there is such a vast quantity of material recorded through digital media and the Internet, necessitating new forms of curation and design to make available the most enriching and insightful elements.

    This challenge is not only relevant to the context of Japan and the archiving of the 2011 disasters, but is a central issue globally. We have already seen initiatives to create digital archives in the Middle East following the revolutions last spring, and an international community is forming under the umbrella of civic media to share intelligence on emerging best practices and tools to create meaningful archives following disasters that aid local citizens, journalists and scholars.

    Tagged: archives berkman center digital DPLA extramuros japan libraries metalab (at) harvard social media zeega

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