Twitter archive at Library of Congress could help redefine history's scope

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010

When the Library of Congress announced this month that it had recently acquired Twitter's entire archive of public tweets, the snarkosphere quickly broke out the popular refrain "Nobody cares that you just watched 'Lost.' " Television tweets are always the shorthand by which naysayers express how idiotic they find Twitter, the microblogging site on which millions of users share their thoughts and activities in 140 characters or fewer.

"If tweets are in, how about postings?" one poster wrote on the library's blog in response to the announcement. Because "all of that information is just as culturally vacant."

The purview of historians has always been the tangible: letters, journals, official documents.

The purview of Twitter, on the other hand, is the ephemeral: random spewings that some argue represent the degeneration of society. Would a Founding Father ever have tweeted his crush on Evangeline Lilly?

But on the other hand, says Michael Beschloss, historian and author of "Presidential Courage," "What historian today wouldn't give his right arm to have the adult Madison's contemporaneous Twitters about the secret debates inside the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia?"

The 21st-century equivalent might already be happening: When Kitty Kelley was researching her new Oprah Winfrey bio, Kelley's assistant spotted a tweet from Winfrey about attending a gala and hugging Whoopi Goldberg. The throwaway shout-out was significant to Kelley, who knew that there had been tension between the women and viewed the tweet as a subtle olive branch. "If you believe that God is in the details -- and all biographers do," Kelley says, "then Twitter will be a godsend!"

Although the library's acquisition might seem to be a capitulation to frivolity and short attention spans, historians say, it's actually about how digital archives such as this are shaping the future of history.

"We are in a period of great transition," Martha Anderson says. "We're trying to figure out the best way to leave evidence for future generations of scholarship."

Anderson works for the library's National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. She is the person charged with figuring out what to do with the billions of tweets in Twitter's archives. Some 50 million new tweets are posted every day; all of the public ones will become available to the library after a six-month delay from their posting, to better delineate between current events and history.

'Broadening of history'

For centuries, history has been biased toward the powerful: presidents, kings, starlets. In recent years, however, interest in the lives of non-celebrities has grown. It's a democratic impulse that, unfortunately, poses a collection problem: Ordinary individuals of the past did not generally document their lives. Preservation happened by neglect; a sheaf of papers thoughtlessly shoved in an attic might be unearthed decades later.

"It's entirely possible to write about extraordinary people during ordinary times, because someone always keeps your letters when you're famous," says historian and Pulitzer Prize finalist H.W. Brands. "And you can also write about ordinary people during extraordinary times," which is when average folks keep records. Think, for example, of Anne Frank's diary.

When Brands was working on "The Age of Gold," his book about the California Gold Rush, many of his subjects were not famous, but he was able to chart their lives through journals and letters that prospectors sent to family members back east.

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