Why Rhizome’s $600,000 Mellon Grant is a Big Deal for Digital Preservation

by Rea McNamara on January 5, 2016 Newswire + Opinion

Screenshot of Constant Dullaart's "Smiling at the Past" (2015) taken via Rhizome's webenact.

Screenshot of Constant Dullaart’s “Smiling at the Past” (2015) taken via Rhizome’s webenact.

New York-based new media non-profit Rhizome announced yesterday it was awarded a two-year $600,000 grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to build Webrecorder, a tool that allows users to archive the internet’s “dynamic content”.

It’s a big deal—the largest grant the organization has received in its 20-year history, and a signalling of the importance for institutions to steer the development of tech tools.

The project has been in development since 2014, when Rhizome hired Dragan Espenschied to steer their digital conservation programme. (When AFC’s Paddy Johnson spoke to Zachary Kaplan last October regarding his appointment as Rhizome’s Executive Director, he mentioned the organization would be “doing research that’s not just going to influence the field, but create new cultures around digital conservation.”)

Espenschied initiated a partnership with developer Ilya Kreymer, a former programmer of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, to develop the tool. Initially called Colloq, the tool built on Kreymer’s open-source code to provide a solution to conserving embedded video hosted on third-party platforms, like YouTube or Vine.

Last February, Rhizome demonstrated the tool’s use by archiving contemporary art blog VVORK. Third party platforms such as YouTube created the largest archival challenges in this project, which ranged from compatibility issues (how do we embed the native YouTube players from 2007 back when the platform uses the default 2016 player?) to simple preservation (what happens when content is removed?). While there’s no preservation solution for already deleted files, the tool not only solves these compatibility issues but replicates as close as possible the context in which these videos and images — especially those on social media profiles — originally existed.    

Since that time, Rhizome has branched out into collaborating with other institutions in supporting their conservation efforts of vernacular digital cultural artifacts. In August, the National Football Museum’s John O’Shea wrote about using Webrecorder to archive fan-made football Vines which are frequently taken down by the service because of copyright claims by sportscasters. Museums such as NFM consider this documentation of public conversation important because it records and charts our evolving relationship with culture. It fosters a fuller understanding of contemporary history.

Social media is particularly important to the conservation project. When we spoke to Kaplan regarding the significance of the $600,000 Mellon grant for Rhizome, he explained that Webrecorder “reframes digital preservation to be about the present and the future, acknowledging that what’s created on the web today is immediately at-risk. In designing user-friendly tools, the project also intends to decentralize the field, empowering individuals to create their own archives and protect vernacular digital cultures.”

Ilya Kreymer, in an interview with AFC today, lays out more concretely where the grant’s support will go: “with this grant, I’m now a full-time Rhizome staff-member, and we’ll even be able to hire additional staff to take on other aspects of the project to ensure that we build the best possible tool for a wide range of use cases in web preservation.” He also confirms the funding will increase the “development efforts and user outreach” of the tool, which is currently in the prototype stage.

The grant comes at a time when a lot of thought and effort is being put into conservation of digital artwork. How will we reprint works of art 50 years in the future, for example, when the original tools no longer exist and the artwork has disintegrated? (The Whitney has been doing a lot of work in this field.)

Indeed, the biggest significance of this news is the hopeful trend it signals: institutions aggressively seeking out the resources and expertise to development tech tools.

“I believe an established cultural institution such as Rhizome is the best place to build Webrecorder, a project dedicated to long term web archiving and preservation,” says Kreymer.

We can’t help but agree.

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