Re-envisioning Web Preservation with The Weekly List | Peer to Peer Review

In 2021, the Annenberg School’s Library Archives accessioned the collection of Amy Siskind’s Weekly List website; however, the path to get there was complicated, and the final gift looked quite different from how it was conceived in the initial conversation. 

head shots of Jordan Mitchell and Katie Rawson
Jordan Mitchell and Katie Rawson

In 2016, writer Amy Siskind started recording and publishing lists of news stories about “eroding norms” in the Donald Trump administration on a website called The Weekly List. She continued this work throughout Trump’s presidency, supplementing the lists and commentary with podcasts. In 2020, she connected with the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. The goal was to maintain and preserve the site as the nation transitioned to a new president. In 2021, the Annenberg School’s Library Archives accessioned the collection of Siskind’s Weekly List; however, the path to get there was complicated, and the final gift looked quite different from how it was conceived in the initial conversation. While the project began with questions about the technical challenge, the truly thorny issues lay in intellectual property and institutional structures.

This project included a wide and growing group of people. What began as a conversation among a faculty member, the dean, and an archivist ended up including representatives from Annenberg development, Penn development, Penn Libraries, Penn’s Office of General Counsel, and the donor’s lawyer. Each time a new person was added, they had to be caught up. Since each was added for their specialization, they almost always changed the course of the project with their insight, and at the same time required significant explanation about other areas of expertise. The lawyers didn’t have experience with archival work; development was not steeped in copyright; the archivist and librarian weren’t familiar with regulations governing university operations; the donor’s expertise was in citizen journalism and not in digital archives, copyright, or university operations. The whole affair was one of repeated reciprocal teaching that constantly shifted not just the process of acquiring the collection but the very framework of what was being acquired.

Because of the collection’s (mostly) digital nature, and the fact that Annenberg, and Penn more generally, had only just begun to establish any sort of infrastructure for digital archives, our initial concerns regarding the project were technical—how, exactly, do we do this? We focused on establishing which solutions would help us achieve two main objectives: 1) archiving for ongoing public access and 2) hosting the live site.

We consulted Annenberg’s IT department about the latter, and our colleagues indicated that it would be a trivial thing to host, as long as everyone understood that, without updates, the site would gradually become obsolete. However, this was the first place that institutional knowledge shifted the plan. We learned that, due to the political nature of The Weekly List, the School would not be able to host it as an active project because it might pose risks to the university’s nonprofit status. While this was a bump, it didn’t undermine the purpose of the gift: having the site available for researchers in the future. We pressed on with archiving the website.

Based on its wide adoption, ease of use, and Annenberg’s small staff size, we decided the Internet Archive’s Archive-It subscription service was our best option to crawl, capture, preserve, and deliver Aspects of the target site, however, were giving us trouble. Each list was linked to hundreds of articles from major news organizations, many behind paywalls. We began exploring linked-material preservation tools (e.g., to determine whether we could preserve some of the news coverage that was at the heart of The Weekly List; however, upon reflection, we realized that instead of beginning with the how, our first question should have been, What is it we are preserving?

The donor was offering us a website, which is a complex entity constituted of several simpler entities. For, those simpler entities included: the lists (and other writings), the site’s design and functionalities, photographs, podcasts, and linked materials (articles and videos). After distinguishing each part from the other, we recognized that the seamless connections between disparate objects indigenous to the functionality of the web had encouraged us to make a category mistake (link ≠ linked material) and had distracted us from the fact that what we were dealing with was the digital analog to a more traditional documentary form, the annotated bibliography. And as an annotated bibliography describes and references works but does not include those works, so linked to articles but didn’t include those linked articles. This shift involved significant discussions with the donor, who worried about the integral role of this external material to the context of the site. It was our turn to share knowledge with her about how the articles and media she linked to were being preserved in other spaces.

With the linked content problem resolved, another quickly materialized to take its place. Delineating the website as a collection of components brought intellectual property to the fore. We considered ownership across the site’s pieces. After determining who held or had a stake in what rights (donor = lists, web designers = site elements, photographers = photographs), we identified which rights holders might easily transfer their claims or license the use of their material (designers = yes, photographers = no). Our legal team surfaced questions that ended up being easy to answer, but had never crossed our minds: Had the donor promised anything to people who financially supported the site? The gift negotiation also included questions about the transfer of intellectual property versus granting a license to us.. Further, she could only donate what she owned. Our archival objective could still be realized, albeit in a more limited form. We could provide public access to the podcasts, which she owned outright, and to the lists themselves and other commentary. We could not, however, post and distribute other elements of, such as photographs Amy Siskind had licensed. With permission to crawl the site, we created a copy that can be accessed by researchers in the library. Amy also gave us a hard drive that included her working material, significantly enriching the on-site collection.

While The Weekly List collection looks quite different from how we envisioned it in our original discussions, it looks much more like a sustainable pathway for the accessioning of non-institutional, born-digital, online content. Preserving this class of materials is paramount to the future of communications research. Media made and shared by invested individuals is the evidence we will need to make sense of this moment now and in the future. The path to The Weekly List was winding and time-intensive, but we are now better prepared to overcome the particular obstacles—whether ontological, legal, institutional, or technological—of this integral type of collection moving forward.

Jordan Mitchell is the archivist and Katie Rawson is the director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication Library.

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