Expanding the Archive: Building a Digital Archive at the Arab American National Museum

By: Meryem Kamil, Doctoral Candidate, American Culture

“Take the banana, put it in a vat of rice overnight, and then use a hair dryer, and all the spots on the banana will disappear.” It’s a lunch break at the Arab American National Museum, and one of the staff is telling us about an internet prank he fell for as we laugh incredulously, passing around a box of Rocky Road flavored Oreos. I looked forward to these Monday afternoons, when drafting reports and collecting archival materials was interrupted by communal lunches on the museum rooftop.

While I don’t have many horror stories of graduate school tension and competition, the days I worked at the AANM still felt like a reprieve to my otherwise stress-laden summer. It felt strange being in such a laid-back environment, having discrete tasks that could be accomplished—sometimes even ahead of schedule. This was so unlike my dissertation writing, where I was on pace at completing a chapter per academic calendar period and everyone is constantly on the verge of a mental breakdown.

My work in creating online archival collections through the Internet Archive’s project archive brought my academic training to developing resources that would be seen by a larger community. The immediacy of deliverables in this project was so alluring I was tempted to procrastinate on my dissertation and work for the museum instead during my off-time.

For this project, I assessed the current archived materials on the AANM archive-it page. For those who are unfamiliar with the Internet Archive, this organization has developed a tool called the Wayback Machine in which anyone can enter a web address and see if it’s been archived at any point. If a site has been archived to the Internet Archive, the Wayback Machine provides snapshots of previous iterations of the site. Archive-it is a tool for organizations to flag which sites they want to take a snapshot of, and these snapshots are then uploaded into the Internet Archive’s database and are available through the Wayback Machine.

When I first looked through archive-it, a service I had no background knowledge of, I saw the AANM collection seemed to be typical of other organizations’ archive-it sites—collecting ephemeral websites, like Arab American politicians’ campaign sites in previous election years, or Islamophobic blogs. Much of the World Wide Web is not indexed (almost 98%) and all of it is ephemeral, dependent on grants, hosting fees, corporate longevity, etc. How many of us still access our Xanga or Geocities sites? Do we even know if those pages are still available or archived somewhere?

After looking at the archive-it sites of dozens of organizations, however, I felt the need to create a different type of archive—one that is a collection of digital-born and analog-to-digital materials. For example, I wanted academic journal articles or books on Arab Americans to be available on archive-it. I imagined the AANM archive-it repository to be a place where a middle schooler doing a project on Arab immigration, or a curious non-Arab wondering if Arabs are considered white, could access.

To develop this resource, I set about emailing professors, former students, and community members about what they felt should be included in an archive of Arab Americans. I also went spelunking in my personal archive for classes I had taught, my prelims lists, bookmarked articles on Academia.edu, etc. I recalled a conversation I had with some of my friends who were still undergraduates during my second year of graduate school. They had asked for historical literature on Queer Arab and Muslim Americans. Luckily, I had been teaching for the Introduction to Arab American Studies class and had resources on hand. But how many folks have these questions and don’t know someone with access to academia? Expanding this archive allowed me to actualize literal public scholarship: circulating knowledge beyond the confines of academia.

Unlike most of my friends and colleagues, I want to have an academic job at an R-1. But like most who are interested in alt-ac careers, I don’t want my expertise to simply go towards the insularity of academia. Rather, I would like to hold onto that part of me that applied to graduate school hoping to become a scholar-activist, and this summer at the AANM has helped nurture that desire again.