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The Challenge of Preserving the Historical Record of #MeToo

Archivists face a battery of technical and ethical questions with few precedents.
The notion that the memory of #MeToo needs preserving—both because it matters and because it could disappear—is also the premise of a much larger archival effort. In June, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute, arguably the paramount repository of works on American feminism, announced its intention to collect the millions of tweets and hundreds of thousands of Web pages—news articles, legislation, changing H.R. policies, public apologies—that composed #MeToo and remain as its evidence. (Harvard faculty members of the steering committee for the #MeToo project include Jill Lepore, a staff writer for this magazine, and Jeannie Suk Gersen, a contributing writer.)

The undertaking has few major precedents. Only in the past decade have historians recognized the value of social media and libraries begun building tools to collect it at scale. (For seven years, starting in 2010, the Library of Congress vacuumed up every tweet, but that archive remains closed to researchers.) The Schlesinger has had to locate its own answers to a battery of technical and ethical questions as it prepares to allow access to its holdings, at least in part, by late 2019. For example, many of the women and men who shared #MeToo stories may have thought of them as ephemeral; they didn’t anticipate that they could become fodder for future theories of history. It’s a thorny dilemma but one that the library has no hope of solving if it doesn’t gather the posts before they disappear. “The argument is always in favor of preservation and against loss,” Jane Kamensky, the Schlesinger director and a Harvard history professor, told me. “As a historian, I believe we only understand things through primary evidence. Anything that stays dark is not going to be understood.”

I met with Kamensky and her team in January, in temporary offices a few blocks from the Radcliffe Quadrangle (where the library is undergoing renovation), for a virtual tour of what they’ve collected so far. She said that she hopes the data will go some way toward answering essential questions about #MeToo: What, if anything, has it accomplished? Was #MeToo a burst of revolutionary energy that has since flamed out, or is it a still-growing constellation of attempts to organize? Amanda Strauss, the special projects manager at the Schlesinger, said that their Twitter searches for #MeToo and related hashtags have continued to yield around a hundred and fifty thousand tweets every week, leaving them unsure about when to impose a temporal boundary on the archive—or where, in hindsight, historians will locate the end of #MeToo.
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