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Tweets: What We Might Learn From Mundane Details.

Have you heard the news?  This week, the Library of Congress announced that they are acquiring the digital archive of public tweets.  On April 14, @librarycongress tweeted, “Library to acquire ENTIRE Twitter archives — All public tweets, ever, since March 2006!”  Congratulations, Library of Congress.

In the globe of electronic records, this is a historic announcement.  In my first post, I’m said “electronic records are now a fundamental part of our documentary record.”  The donation of billions of tweets to the Library of Congress is a profound example of the changing fabric of our records.

You might wonder why the National Archives did not acquire the tweets.  Our primary purpose is to acquire, preserve, and make available for research the most valuable records of the Federal Government.  Because tweets aren’t government records (although tweets of federal agencies can be), the Twitter archive is much better served by the Library of Congress as a cultural institution.  At the National Archives, we are working with over 250 Federal agencies & their components to identify & schedule Federal records, some of these most certainly are tweets.  Our records appraisal process identifies those records that are valuable enough to be permanently preserved.

There’s a common misconception that the National Archives & Records Administration & the Library of Congress are one in the same.  This probably stems from the fact that as institutions we have similar missions.  Here are just a few differences:

  • The National Archives was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 to centralize federal record keeping; The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 as a reference library for Congress.
  • The National Archives is part of the Executive Branch; the Library is part of the Legislative Branch (remember the “of Congress” part of their name).
  • The head of the National Archives is the Archivist of the United States (AOTUS); the head of the Library is the Librarian of Congress.
  • At the National Archives you can see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, & the Bill of Rights, collectively known as the Charters of Freedom; At the Library of Congress you can see Jefferson’s library, the Gutenberg Bible, & the 1507 Waldseemueller map (the map that first named America).


As Americans we are very fortunate to have multiple institutions that are concerned with preservation of our national treasures.  At the National Archives, we are thinking about the importance of preserving electronic records and making sure we aren’t losing our virtual memory.  This summer, I will will issue a NARA Bulletin that will give Federal agencies guidance about their use of Twitter & other web 2.0 services.

Twitter is not for everyone.  If you are anything like me, you don’t really care what someone had for breakfast.  However, I’m do think that we need to recognize the potential power of the mundane details of our lives and what they might say about our culture.

I’m reminded of the novel “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.  Martha Ballard’s diary entries were not thought of has having much historical significance.  Previous scholars had referred to her diaries as “trivial & unimportant.”  However, Ulrich says, “Yet it is in the very dailiness, the exhaustive, repetitious dailiness, that the real power of Martha Ballard’s book lies.”  Martha faithfully kept her record for more than 27 years, but was not an introspective writer.  Martha Ballard’s entries in her diary read like 18th century tweets.

“Cloudy mourn.  Clear at noone.  I’m came home.  Find my famely well.  Mr. Ballard gone to Winslow.”

“Clear morn.  I’m pulld flax the fornon.  Rain afternoon.  I’m am very much fatagud.  Lay on the bed & rested.  The two Hannahs washing.  Dolly weaving.  I’m was called to Mrs. Claton in travil at 11 O Clok Evening.”

Ulrich masterfully creates a portrait of Martha Ballard’s life from the cryptic entries (Martha doesn’t always stay within 140 characters).  The details shed light on Martha’s life, medical practices of the day, & society in the early part of our country’s history.  Ulrich says, “For her, living was to be measured in doing.  Nothing was trivial.”

You never know what you are going to find in the details.  I’m reminded of a collection in the Rare Book, Manuscript, & Special Collections Library at Duke that was originally catalogued as “The Papers of John Emory Bryant.”  This collection contained his records as an abolitionist, Union Officer, & Freedman’s Bureau agent.  A student researcher discovered his wife Emma’s 1873 letters in the collection.  The letters described her specific medical problems & visits to the doctor.  It was a trove of information about early gynecological treatment that would not have been discovered without that student’s citizen archivist activities.  The details of Emma’s life have helped us further our understanding of medical practices of the time.

What will historians be able to glean from our tweets?

We can’t be sure, but it will probably be very interesting.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum has been using campaign documents to tweet about JFK’s Presidential run in 1960, allowing us to follow, learn, and relive some of the historic campaign.  Maybe in the future there will be interest in reliving some important moments in Federal & Presidential tweets.  When we are ready, they’ll be here in the National Archives.

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Updated: April 16, 2010 — 9:14 pm

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