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Why the Library of Congress Thinks Your Favorite Meme Is Worth Preserving

Webcomics and Web Cultures Archives are documenting online culture

Presumably laughing at a LOLcats meme. (iStock/eli_asenova)
smithsonian.com

You wake up and text an emoji-heavy message to a friend. You go online and read a webcomic. You post a reaction gif in response to a tweet. For you, it’s just another day in the life—but for scholars trying to preserve the culture of an internet-saturated society, that content is worthy of study. The Library of Congress thinks online language, images and customs are worth preserving—so this week it launched two collections of digital goodies in a bid to document our online lives.

The Webcomics Web Archive and the Web Cultures Web Archive are designed to document today’s cultural life, much of which takes place behind a screen. But that ephemeral quality doesn’t daunt national archivists. Since the dawn of the internet, the Library of Congress has been saving websites and other online material and thus far has amassed over a petabyte of data.

The webcomics archive shows the lighter side of that work. It features popular comics like Hyperbole and a Half, Dinosaur Comics! and Hark! A Vagrant—all with diverse art and offbeat humor that has captured large audiences since the medium launched with the dawn of the internet.

The collection focuses on content that’s proved itself with longevity—think Randall Munroe’s xkcd, which he created in 2005. Munroe expanded the bounds of the medium with Time, an over 3,000-frame-long comic that morphed from stick figures into something much bigger. The collection also includes comics that have won prestigious awards and ones created by or featuring women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people.

As for the cultures archive, it’s a mishmash of everything that makes the internet so maddening and addictive. It’s got everything from urban legends to image macros, emoji to lolcats. The collection was pulled together by a group of scholars intent on documenting how the internet helps people create and share 21st-century folklore—today’s versions of nursery rhymes, chain letters and riddles.

“This effort will help scholars 25 and 100 years from now have a fuller picture of the culture and life of people today,” says the director of the American Folklife Center, Elizabeth Peterson, in a press release. But both archives are also a pretty entertaining read while you wait for that even more frenetic future.

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