I am undertaking my PhD research at the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University as part of the ARC Linkage project Representing Multicultural Australia in National and State Libraries. My candidature was confirmed in December 2020, I conducted my fieldwork throughout 2021, and I will be writing up my thesis throughout 2022 and 2023. Below is a working abstract for my thesis.

Assembling the Web of Australia’s past: online technologies, national heritage, and the shaping of the contemporary cultural record

Image: Still from Into the Future: On the Preservation of Knowledge in the Electronic Age (Terry Sanders, 1997).

How do technology-saturated visions, expectations, and fears surrounding the future of Australia’s documentary heritage interact with the organisational practices and politics of its everyday enactment? To answer this question, I ethnographically follow the network of people and artefacts that mobilise to pursue one aspect of these imaginaries: the development of large collections of archived websites and social media data. Taken together, the collections I focus on—the Australian Web Archive and the State Library of New South Wales Social Media Archive—are imagined by library workers to constitute Australia’s future documentary heritage and the contemporary historical record. Drawing on ethnographic and historical research among Australia’s national and state libraries, I detail how the practical reality of building, maintaining, and disseminating content from dynamic, networked information environments works to complicate (and in many cases undermine) the imaginaries that animate and sustain their development. Drawing on actor-network theory, I detail the precarious alignment of heterogeneous elements—people, machines, and documents—that have shaped and reshaped how Australia’s future documentary heritage has been imagined and enacted over the past thirty years, and how controversies, breakdowns, and unruly entities have destabilised and reoriented its development in various ways.

The thesis centres around three moments that highlight the “mess and mythology” (Dourish & Bell, 2011) of building collections in the long-term public interest using content from dynamic, networked information environments. To guide my analysis, I focus on a series of “problematizations” (Rabinow, 2011) when the future of Australia’s documentary heritage was called into question, and how library workers, artefacts, and imaginaries came together to ensure its continuity through processes of rethinking and reworking practices, dispositions, and arrangements long taken for granted. These processes, in turn, have reoriented how the role of the national and state libraries is imagined and accomplished in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. First, I detail how library workers at the National Library of Australia (NLA) reoriented collecting processes and organisational arrangements upon the emergence of the web in Australia by identifying and acting upon the nascent web as a medium of publication. Drawing on ethnographic and historical research at the NLA, I detail the steady realignment of library systems and practices that made possible the capture, preservation, and dissemination of websites as a type of publication. Second, I detail how the ethics, politics, and practical limitations of selecting content from a rapidly growing web has steadily led to an increasing reliance on automated software. I outline the unexpected effects of its deployment and how the scaling up of collecting reshapes the nature of curation and library work. Finally, I detail ongoing efforts among national and state libraries to collect social media content, and how these efforts are both animated and sustained by a moral imperative among library workers centred around future use and destabilised by governance arrangements that trouble the collection, preservation, and redistribution of this content.

Based on these findings, I argue that attempts to build, manage, and study contemporary library collections must reckon with both the sociotechnical imaginaries and practical politics of their ongoing enactment, which involves the coordination and stabilisation of a whole array of heterogeneous (and at times unruly) entities. The achievement of Australia’s contemporary digital historical record can therefore be seen as a relational and precarious achievement, as speculative visions collide with practical politics within Australia’s national and state libraries. My thesis has significant implications for understanding how the form, function, and future of public knowledge infrastructures are presently being imagined, pursued, and challenged, as well as addressing wider questions about changes to how information is governed, and in whose interest, over the past three decades.