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Library of Congress keeps tweets for the ages

If you've used Twitter, you're in the digital archives along with Obama, a Mars lander and millions of other users.

May 09, 2010|By Faye Fiore, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — Sometime over the last 200 years the Library of Congress came to be regarded as stuffy. This could be because its prized holdings include George Washington's copy of the Constitution and the Giant Bible of Mainz.

But under all that marble and granite in the heart of the nation's capital beats an alter ego that is hip. How else would one explain the latest acquisition of the world's largest library: every tweet ever twittered since the very first tweet by founder Jack Dorsey ("just setting up my twttr') on March 21, 2006.

That's right. If you ever woke up, grabbed your phone and twittered your friends that you got hold of some bad shrimp last night, you may consider your work inducted into the nation's oldest cultural institution.

Billions of public musings of 140 characters or less — with 55 million more pouring in daily — will be digitally preserved alongside the likes of Albert Einstein's Annus Mirabilis, not to mention Bob Hope's vaudeville numbers and the comic book adventures of Dagwood Bumstead. (It seems the library has been in touch with its jocular side for some time.)

So prestigious in Washington circles that it commands the proper noun, "The Library" is housed in three grand structures connected by underground tunnels and named for three presidents — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison. Deciding that micro-blogging is an important part of modern American culture, the library recently asked Twitter to donate its archives.

Now tweets large and small will be maintained for research, the library's primary mission. Like the one from President Obama the night he was elected: "We just made history." And after he won the Nobel Prize: "Humbled."

There is the robotic blurt from the Mars Phoenix Lander when it discovered water on the red planet: "We have ICE!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars. woot!!!"

But Twitter's unique contribution may be the window it provides into humdrum American life. Where else can behaviorists find such an exhaustive record of the everyday doings of people you've never heard of?

Consider Max Kiesler's proposal to Emily Chang, now memorialized across the street from the Capitol: "After 15 years of blissful happiness I would like to ask for your hand in marriage?"

And the first tweet by Corey Menscher's fetus: "I kicked Mommy at 12:18 PM on Thu Dec 11!"

Skeptics who dismiss Twitter as a fleeting fad on par with the Hula Hoop should take note. Twitter has already recorded some powerful moments, according to Mashable, a social media news blog.

On April 10, 2008, UC Berkeley grad student James Karl Buck tweeted "Arrested" when he was detained by Egyptian police during an anti-government protest. The university got a lawyer and he was freed.

A California woman's suicide may have been thwarted when she tweeted actress Demi Moore: ""gbye ... gonna kill myself now." Moore retweeted to hundreds of thousands of her followers; the woman was located and hospitalized.

Twitter has changed the way the nation hears big news — in amateur, real-time scoops. The 2008 Chinese earthquake, the Mumbai terrorist attack and the Continental Airlines 737 crash in Denver all broke on Twitter. "Holy ***I wasbjustb in a plane crash!" passenger Mike Wilson informed the world.

The library's holdings — 745 miles of shelves with printed material in 470 languages, the largest rare book collection in North America, and now billions of tweets — make up "the world's most comprehensive record of human creativity and knowledge," according to its website.

"The Twitter digital archive has extraordinary potential for research into our contemporary way of life," said James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress.

Twitter was equally joyful, more briefly of course. Said a spokesman: "Twitter is honored to be part of the LOC collection."

faye.fiore@latimes.com

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