Archiving Digital Media: From Documenting Ferguson to Documenting the Now

© Mark Regester, “Site of the shooting of Michael Brown. Canfield Drive. ,” Documenting Ferguson.

When Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO on August 9th, 2014, social media played a huge role in how this shooting and the protests that followed were reported and interpreted. Official media reports of the events as they unfolded were constantly being challenged and reshaped by twitter and blog posts from witnesses on the ground.

Only a day after the initial shooting, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held their annual meeting. Captivated by the role that social media was playing in such a historic moment, archivists from universities throughout the country recognized the challenges of collecting and archiving this digital material. Unlike paper documents and photographs that have a physical form, tweets can be deleted, accounts erased, and urls changed. In other words, all of the photos being shared, testimonies being blogged and tweeted, and hashtags being circulated could easily disappear in a matter of years, if not sooner, and be lost to researchers and future historians forever.

After the conference, Bergis Jules from the University of California Riverside and Ed Summers from Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities began discussing ways that archivists could preserve this material. At the same time, librarians at Washington University in St. Louis including Chris Freeland, former Associate University Librarian,  Rudolph Clay,  African & African American Studies Librarian, Nadia Ghasedi, Associate University Librarian, Sonya Rooney, University Archivist, Shannon Davis, Digital Library Services Manager, and others had the idea of assembling a team to establish a digital repository for Ferguson material that quickly became the framework for the ongoing Documenting Ferguson project.

© Chris Freeland, “RIP Mike Brown graffiti,” Documenting Ferguson.

Documenting Ferguson

Because of its location near Ferguson, Washington University was ideally situated for collaborating with activists and community members to begin collecting digital responses to Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement that evolved from it. They began soliciting materials from the community, and within a few short months had already collected around 300 files for their digital archive.

From the very beginning of the Documenting Ferguson project, collaborators had to address issues about the ethical use of social media. In order to avoid creating an archive of materials that users would not want preserved and shared in this way, Documenting Ferguson had internet users submit their own material voluntarily.

© Mark Regester, “Guys chanting on an electrical box on W. Florissant,” Documenting Ferguson.

Voluntary uploading avoided messy ethical questions about compiling an archive of personal responses, but it also presented challenges. One challenge is that because digital media is so new, the general public does not always recognize the importance of preserving it, even if they know resources like Documenting Ferguson are available. Over the years, people have uploaded almost 800 photographs, artwork, essays, poems, interviews, and other material documenting the community’s reaction to the shooting, but that is only a very small fraction of the reactions to Ferguson and so presents only a limited picture of the event for the historical record.

Forming Doc Now

© Holly Schroeder, “Brown Family,” Documenting Ferguson.

In an effort to come up with an ethical way of more comprehensively preserving the digital media that had contributed to such a significant social movement, Meredith Evans, former associate university librarian at Wash U, began collaborating with Jules and Summers and building an advisory board for a new project that would make it easier for researchers to collect, analyze, and preserve Twitter messages. In early 2016, Washington University in St Louis, University of California Riverside, and Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities officially started a project called “Documenting the Now: Supporting Scholarly Use and Preservation of Social Media Content,” for which they received a $517,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. When Evans left WUSTL to become the director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in November 2015, Chris Freeland replaced her as Washington University’s co-principal investigator alongside Jules and Summers. Freeland later handed the role over to Washington University’s current co-principal investigator, Popular American Arts Curator Vernon Mitchell Jr.

© Joel Levy, “Ferguson, Night 3, Photo 2,” Documenting Ferguson.

As Summers wrote in his article on the project, Documenting the Now, or Doc Now, has two major goals:

“The first is to develop an open source Web application called Doc Now that will allow researchers and archivists to easily collect, analyze and preserve Twitter messages and the Web resources they reference. The second is to cultivate a much needed conversation between scholars, archivists, journalists and human rights activists around the effective and ethical use of social media content… As you can imagine, realizing the second goal is really a prerequisite for achieving the first.”

Doc Now Today

Photo by Patrick Gaydon. Vernon Mitchel, Washington University in St Louis’ co-principal investigator on the Doc Now project, speaking at the Second Annual Doc Now Symposium, Dec 11-12, 2017.


Photo by Patrick Gaydon. Vernon Mitchel, Washington University in St Louis’ co-principal investigator on the Doc Now project,  speaking with Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski at the Second Annual Doc Now Symposium, Dec 11-12, 2017.

In order to achieve its second goal, Doc Now has hosted two annual conferences, the second of which, “Digital Blackness in the Archive: A Documenting the Now Symposium” was held last week on the Wash U campus. Panelists at the conference, which included community organizers, activists, university researchers, computer engineers, and software designers, discussed the challenges of using social media as part of their research. They discussed the importance of seeing people and their tweets as more than just data points, and how this might require challenging traditional methods of scholarship that pose the researcher as an objective and uninvolved observer, chronicling the objective facts of a situation. They also discussed the ethics of using tweets that are technically public, but that the writer did not necessarily intend to be used or cataloged as part of someone else’s project.

Photo by Patrick Gaydon. Panel on “The Ferguson Effect on Local Activism and Community Memory” with (left to right) Aleia Brown, Brittany Ferrell, Alexis Templeton, and Kayla Reed.

Photo by Patrick Gaydon. Panel at the DocNow Symposium, Dec. 12, 2017: Supporting Research: Digital Black Culture Archives for the Humanities and Social Sciences with Catherine Knight Steele (center) and Alyssa Collins.

Learn More About Doc Now

You can read more about Doc Now on their website, where you can also find a number of other tools to help researchers work with Twitter data. You can also read our initial post on the project here. The Doc Now app is scheduled to be released some time in 2018.



Summers, Ed. “Introducing Documenting the Now.” Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, Feb 16, 2016.

Peet, Lisa. “Documenting the Now Builds Social Media Archive.” Library Journal, May 2, 2016.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.