Opening the Black Box of Web Archiving: STS Approaches and the Governance of Born-Digital Heritage

Illustration à partir de Nils Jepsen - Aarhus Universitet  CC BY 2.5

Illustration à partir de Nils Jepsen – Aarhus Universitet
CC BY 2.5

Résumé de l’intervention de Francesca Musiani et Valérie Schafer au colloque Web Archives as scholarly Sources: Issues, Practices and Perspectives, international conference, Aarhus (DK), 8-10 Juin 2015

At the crossroads of two topics of the conference, “Approaches to web archiving” and “Research methods for studying the archived web”, our starting point is that the material, practical, theoretical elements of Web archiving as an ensemble of practices and a terrain of inquiry are inextricably entwined. Several examples illustrate this, from the archiving practices of Internet Archive to those of national preservation institutions: they reveal different modalities of accessibility to archives, consultation interfaces, constitution of corpuses – that, in turn, are not without methodological consequences for researchers. Thus, the exploration of Web archiving processes and infrastructures – often discreet, invisible, ‘black-boxed’ (Latour, 1987) appears increasingly relevant.

Approaches inspired by Science and Technology Studies (STS) can contribute to shed light on the shaping of Web archives; and, in return, some of its notions – e.g. technical democracy, co-production, boundary object (Callon et al., 2001; Star & Griesemer, 1989) – may be approached in novel ways building upon Web archives as a research terrain. In particular, STS approaches are interesting in order to explore the notion of governance as it relates to born-digital heritage.

In 2005, the Working Group on Internet Governance defined Internet governance as “the development and application by Governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet”, adding that “it also includes other significant public policy issues, such as critical Internet resources, the security and safety of the Internet, and developmental aspects and issues pertaining to the use of the Internet”. A definition that fits Web archives very well, if they replace systematically the word “Internet”: indeed, Web archiving practices involve a variety of actors, moved by different motivations; they encompass different and evolving definitions, values, imaginaries of the very notion of Web archiving (e.g. Kaehle, 2014 on the “participatory turn” in archiving the Internet); they suggest different ways in which control and responsibility can be exerted, be it social norms, technical standards or policies.

As such, our contribution aims to show that Web archives and archiving, understood as a socio-technical system, display a number of features and raise questions that are of interest for Internet governance scholars: multi-stakeholderism, the dialectic between national, international, transnational governance(s), and the juxtaposition of market, technology and norms as instruments of power. Web archiving: a microcosm of Internet governance?


Callon, M., Lascoumes, P. & Barthe, Y. (2001). Agir dans un monde incertain. Essai sur la démocratie technique, Paris: Seuil.

Kaehle, B. (2014, October 28). “Building Libraries Together

Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Star, S. L. & Griesemer, J. (1989). Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19 (3) : 387- 420.