News

Alexandria Library launches new archive to document the city’s online culture

The Kate Waller Barrett Branch of the Alexandria Library. (Staff photo by James Cullum)

In the Alexandria Gazette’s newsroom is a wall filled with archives of the news organization dating back to the early 19th century.

It’s an invaluable resource and a chance to look back at Alexandrians describing the city in their era in their own words, from local advertisements to gossip at the port. As more news is reported exclusively online, the Alexandria Library is hoping to recapture that sort of archive for the digital age.

The Alexandria Community Web Archives is described by the library system as part of an ongoing mission to document the history and culture of Alexandria. The archive captures images of various websites covering Alexandria to keep them available for posterity.

ALXnow spoke with Patricia Walker, branch manager of Local History/Special Collections, about the new archive.

ALXnow: How did this project get started? Has this been on your mind for a while or was it something that was spurred on by a particular incident?

Walker: Web archiving has been on our radar for several years, because it is very important for documenting local communities. However, we needed time to update the Local History/Special Collections Branch’s digital archiving technology.

Fortunately, the timing worked out well because we were able to hire a new archivist around the same time as the Internet Archive opened up applications for public libraries to apply for the Mellon-funded Community Webs program. This program is very beneficial to public libraries because it helps establish these Community Web programs by taking care of the costs for the software and storage support for the first two years.

ALXnow: When did this project start?

Walker: We applied to be a Community Webs member on August 26, 2022. We began compiling a list of sites we knew we wanted to document in September 2022. Because these types of projects can require a lot of technical and descriptive work, it takes time to launch them. In fact it took us almost a year to launch, which happened on 4/7/2023.

ALXnow: As this project gets going, what are you hoping will be the benefit to people a generation or two removed as they look back at this collection?

Walker: People will have access to the information they need. Essentially we are capturing snapshots of our community in all its variety – whether that is obituaries on funeral home sites; information on food insecurity, immigration, or civil rights needs captured through non-profit sites; or the changing architecture and cuisine within the city captured through the sites of businesses and restaurants. We want people to make site suggestions to make sure we are representing everyone.

ALXnow: Are there any goals for how often the archive will document sites? Right now it looks like there are only a handful of sites with archives captured and there are some, like ours or Patch, that update every day. Will every day eventually be accessible?

Walker: We have guidelines for how often we capture a site based on if it updates daily, monthly, quarterly, or annually. We don’t want to capture most sites every day since many do not update that often. Also, with projects like this one, there are subscription and storage costs involved so we need to balance cost against how often we capture a site.

Fortunately, the first two years will be funded by the Mellon Foundation, but they have set data limits we still have to work within for this project. We want to make sure that we manage the project in such a way that we can anticipate the future costs and data needs the Library will be responsible for after the second year of the project.

While it appears that we only have 23 sites being captured, we actually have 197 sites on our list to be evaluated, and we are still actively adding more as we find them. We are contacting site owners in advance so we can answer questions and address any concerns they may have about the project before capturing their site.