ICHORA 2020, DAY 3: Ed Summers, “Appraisal in Web Archives”

Note: This presentation was part of a four-person panel entitled “Digital Transformations, Changing Institutions.”

Ed Summers (University of Maryland, College Park) shares a chapter in his successfully defended dissertation entitled “Seeing Software: Appraisal in Web Archives.” Based on a year-long field study which Summers conducted at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the presentation draws upon the theoretical basis developed by Sara Ahmed in What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use to explore the ways that archivists express the value of preserving and using web archives. Working closely with librarians and archivists as a participant-observer at the NIST library, Summers investigates the creation of the National Software Reference Library (NSRL), a part of the United States’ Department of Commerce. 

The NSRL was begun as early as 1999. About ten years ago, the NSRL started collecting software directly from the web. As of 2016, it reportedly stood as “the largest publicly-held repository of digital software in the world.” Among the publicly-supported and internationally-accessible digital repositories which NIST has created is a Reference Data Set (the NSRL RDS). [1] “Published and updated every three months,” this growing body of metadata and digital signatures consists of just a sample of the entire collection of software packages preserved in the NSRL. [2] 


Nevertheless, as Summers reports in three separate vignettes, the NSRL RDS has been used, mis-used, and dis-used. In his story of “use,” the NIST librarians claimed to have been guided by popularity of the collected software by using an appraisal strategy that sought to fill the RDS with popular software for use in digital forensic work of local and state law enforcement. However, much of those agencies’ use of the RDS has been a shifting target, with the emphasis on including software which can be eliminated from consideration during searches of criminal suspects’ computer files. The example of “mis-use,” as Summers labels it, involved NSRL providing a digital software signature to the government of Turkey in its effort “to inspect 1.6 million devices during the investigation into the 2016 coup attempt which led to 75,000 being put in jail.” The instance of “dis-use” stemmed from the 50,000 software titles in the personal collection of Thomas Cabrinety (now housed at Stanford University Archives and made available through Stanford’s digital repository). Through an agreement with Stanford to process the Cabrinety collection, NSRL obtained disk images and format metadata. Yet because many of the titles date prior to 1988, most of the software titles in Cabrinety have never been added to the RDS. Rather, the Cabrinety collection has provided law enforcement and defense intelligence forensic analysts with the raw material to improve their technical capabilities. 


Given that historians and other historical scholars only just begun to write about the late twentieth and early twentieth-first centuries and thereby incorporate web archives into their source material, the increasing number of use cases of the NSRL RDS by a range of “customers” – not just historians – points Summers to the flaws in how selection criteria typically guide archivists of the web. “Failing to attend to the use of records lets us believe in the history of the singular use, as if they’re always and only evidence of a particular thing.” Instead, Summers believes that “recognizing, critiquing, and celebrating the use of records is where we encounter the value of web archives.”

[1] The date of 1999 is provided by a slide in Summers’ talk entitled “Recognition of the contribution of the NSRL to helping law enforcement catch child predators.” Michael Kassner, “National Software Reference Library: An important digital tool for forensic investigators,” TechRepublic, available at no cost at https://www.techrepublic.com/article/national-software-reference-library-an-important-digital-tool-for-forensic-investigators/    

[2] “NIST: NSRL Introduction”, “official website of the United States government”, accessed on February 21, 2021.

Dr. Eric C. Stoykovich

College Archivist and Manuscript Librarian, Watkinson Library, Trinity College (Hartford, CT)

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