YouTube users around the globe upload 400 hours of content every 60 seconds, a quantity that leads to descriptions of the platform as “the world’s largest archive of moving images.” We look at how the myth of YouTube as an archive arises and evaluate sources that show its shortcomings in this respect. These discussions ground our recommendations for developing new practices for archiving YouTube content to support scholarly research, a recommendation that starts with a squirrel.
Understanding YouTube’s evolution
The mythology of YouTube as an archive
Scholarship using YouTube
YouTube has been mythologized as an archive, a reflection of its current scope and prominence. YouTube claims one billion users or almost one-third of all people using the Internet; global use of the platform, then, factors in its sometimes contested characterization as a “democratic digital archive.”  YouTube embraces this ideal in its self-depiction as a reflection of the world, claiming that it offers “the rawest, purest, most unfiltered portrait of how we are as people” (YouTubeSpotlight, 2017). With this vast reach, those who generate platform content gain status as cultural icons and media stars. A Forbes profile of YouTube revealed that “The platform uploads around 400 hours of content every minute, from creators all over the world, and more and more publicity has been given to high-profile YouTubers over recent years, with figures such as Zoella, PewDiePie and Tyler Oakley gaining traction in the mainstream media” (Bergman, 2017). These facts and figures lead some researchers to view YouTube as a platform that “archives and distributes audiovisual media, which allows us to extend our senses beyond the range of our body’s geographic environment, introducing us to people and places, sights and sounds that we would not otherwise have the opportunity to perceive.”  These assessments indicate the centrality of YouTube to contemporary culture and media use. They also point to an emerging reality of contemporary scholarship, that phenomena of interest to media researchers is held by YouTube.
YouTube, however, is not an archive, and its de facto role as a digital repository has implications for scholarly and institutional practice. Particularly as cultural heritage institutions adopt tiered preservation plans that prioritize high-level preservation of some items and deprioritize others, understanding the implications of seeing YouTube as an archive matters. To create an issues overview, we examine a selection of narratives about YouTube, scholarship on YouTube content, and institutional archival practices for managing moving images; in tandem, we limn the challenges that result from relying on YouTube content in academic work on popular culture and media. We note that YouTube’s ability to store moving images and their accompanying audio and textual material, such as narration, closed captioning, and the like, is complicated by licensing, copyright, and related legal matters; our focus, however, is how the continued availability of moving images through a commercial platform affects research and related aspects of scholarly and institutional practice.
A model and metaphor for digital media uploaded to YouTube lies in the institutional practices of natural history museums and archives. These institutions contain not just research or resulting discourse; researchers ensure their collections include the thing itself, whether that thing is lichen or a western gray squirrel [Sciurus griseus] (Council of Biology Editors, 2002; Field Museum of Natural History, n.d.; American Museum of Natural History, n.d.). We find value in that practice of depositing the squirrel for study with an institution, and in what follows, we create a rationale for researchers who work with digital YouTube media to emulate this model. Our squirrels may be digital, or rather metaphorical, given that researchers’ interests have to do with antics documented on YouTube rather than in the wild, but access to a specific recording nonetheless is best ensured by institutional repositories rather than relying on third party platforms. Despite a long-standing divergence between humanities and scientific cultures first noted by C. P. Snow (1959) some years ago, we argue the utility of bringing ideas across the divide he identified as a means of seeking solutions to a problem that will only grow in scale.
Understanding YouTube’s evolution
As a preface to that discussion, we offer a brief history of YouTube’s emergence as “the world’s largest archive of moving images.”  YouTube debuted in 2005, but changes in the platform and users’ responses to it mean that its twelve-year history a discontinuous one. Where Jenkins constructs a prehistory of zines and other video-sharing platforms, Burgess and Green outline multiple origin stories that explain the rise of YouTube from a platform with a relatively small user base to a Google product with an exponentially large content stream, concluding that it is impossible or even erroneous to focus on one of these stories (Jenkins, 2009; Burgess and Green, 2009). Numerous scholars have described how YouTube once lacked the draw of other social media platforms, characterizing its early users as a small, networked community (van Dijck, 2013; Burgess and Green, 2009; Jenkins, et al., 2016; Gardner and Lehner, 2016). Following the 2006 acquisition by Google, later changes included different criteria for the monetization of content, chiefly topics that might be controversial. Now, most creators and scholars agree that its use and scale have been transformed, rendering it the dominant, contemporary video sharing outlet whose popularity has led content producers, including those in broadcast television, to include it in their media strategies. In the end, all narratives affirm the platform’s prominence.
In their accounts of YouTube’s rise, scholars call attention to the multiple activities involved in using YouTube as a site or system of cultural exchange. Significantly, they include archiving among those uses. Burgess and Green have described YouTube as, alternately, “a high-volume Web site, a broadcast platform, a media archive, a social network.”  Notably, van Dijck has argued that the language of the platform itself rests on synecdoche. She has argued, that “‘Video sharing’ [is] a shorthand for the multiple online social activities triggered by YouTube. The term covers watching and uploading of content, but also refers to quoting, favoriting, commenting on responding to, archiving, editing, and mashing up videos.”  Consequently, van Dijck has observed that YouTube needs “demystification.”  That more complex view of YouTube, we argue, has yet to emerge, in part because YouTube users and the broader public alike repeat core aspects of the mythology. Of particular interest is the way that discourse repeats themes of permanence, despite indications of flux in accessing YouTube content.
The mythology of YouTube as an archive
One reason users and scholars see YouTube as an archive has to do with the distance between the meaning of the term archive agreed upon by specialists and its reworking by a broader community of individuals interested in collections of, for want of a better word, data. The way the archival profession understands its work and the way that its language has been revisited by others, particularly those who curate digital, online collections, is pivotal to creating perceptions of YouTube as an archive. This has come about without the affordances of access, permanence, and other elements of organization and control long associated with professional archival work.
Defining archive in a media studies context, Harris posits that “Physical archives claim to amass anything that gives evidence of time that has passed.”  More technically, the Society of American Archivists defines the term archives as “Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records” (Pearce-Moses, 2005). These records are estimated to represent about one to three percent of the total documentary universe (Cook, 2007). Archives are selected, arranged, described, and preserved according to the principles of provenance (referring to the creator of the record whether individual, family, or institution) and original order (records are maintained in the order in which they were maintained by their creator). Through these principles, archives ensure the authenticity, reliability, and evidential value of the records that they are charged with preserving for posterity.
Archivists often draw a distinction between the archives that they maintain and the archive in other contexts. Price adds another layer of abstraction, suggesting that while the archive has been associated with material objects, with digital collections, “archive has gradually come to mean a purposeful collection of surrogates.”  Here digital copies of records replace the physical collections in the archives, transcending these institutional spaces. Digital humanities scholars have also co-opted the term archives to describe projects concerned with the digitization, annotation, and visualization of primary source materials (Theimer, 2012). Freed from their physical forms and unmoored from the shelves of the traditional brick-and-mortar archives, in their digital form, these documents can be freely shared, edited, copied, changed, and reposted. Gracy (2007) reflects on the agency of the users who are able to function as their own archivists, selecting, describing, and arranging the materials that they deem to have a value without the intervention of the traditional archives.
Further, the term archive has been appropriated by those outside the field, referring to the collection of any documentation of historical interest (Pearce-Moses, 2005), a rhetorical move that fosters the reading of YouTube as an archive. Folsom has described how digital projects can also come to rely on the resonance of the traditional archive: “We call it The Walt Whitman Archive, but that’s a metaphor, meant to evoke the dust and texture and smell of the old books and documents themselves the Whitman Archive is, in actuality or virtuality, a database.”  Archive in this context not only references the physical materials of Whitman’s papers, but the authority of the archive as a trusted resource that lends authority to the records it contains. According to Prelinger, this extension of the concept allows the public to see YouTube as “not simply an archive but an ideal form of archive.” Because of the illusion of completeness, coupled with the ability to contribute video or comments, and to embed and share videos (Prelinger, 2009), YouTube has become popularly regarded an idealized interaction with the archive unattainable in established institutional models. Gracy offers a similar analysis of the platform, dubbing YouTube a “democratic digital archive” that “encourages the deposit and use of any and all material that belong to the public.”  At times, it seems the consensus among scholars is that YouTube functions as the “default media archive.”  Juhasz goes so far as to suggest that the platform is “our culture’s most visited archive of moving images.” 
Memoirs and commentaries by high-profile YouTubers characterize the platform as a site marked by permanence, offering further examples of the idea of YouTube as a repository that will provide ongoing access to their content. Tyler Oakley invoked these assumptions when he recounted a moment when a famous musician retweeted one of his Twitter posts. He wrote, “I have to record this moment and save it for eternity. I calmly set up my tripod, turned on my camera, and then reacted. What came out of that four minutes of filming now lives in infamy on my YouTube channel.”  Another well-known YouTuber, Jenn McCallister, articulates the expectation that her online videos will endure:
One of the things I love about being a YouTuber is that I’ll have most of my life on video forever. I know when I get older it’ll be awesome to have this much of my life at my disposal even if I sometimes cringe at images of my younger self. Nothing on the Internet really ever goes away. 
Despite having recounted a time when her social media accounts were hacked and material was deleted, she anticipates that the YouTube videos will function much like home movies once did, writing, “I often think about what it’s going to be like once I have kids and they see everything I’ve done on the Internet. My kids are going to know exactly what I was like as a teenager and a young adult before I had them ...”  Even novels about contemporary culture repeat the trope, as when a character in Geekerella explains her knowledge of an infamous mishap saying, “YouTube is forever.”
These widespread expectations of YouTube’s permanence in curating personal history often compare it to older media. Grusin observes that “YouTube not only functions as a 24/7, global archive of mainly user-created video content, but it also serves as an archive of affective moments or formations, much as television has done for decades.”  The lore of YouTube as a stable repository for everything from news clips of notable public events to personal stories is also reflected by Trillin’s nostalgic account of the years when his family gathered to watch home movies: “The term ‘home movies’ conjured up in those days ... the rough equivalent of today’s cell-phone videos on Facebook or YouTube.”  In the twenty-first century, Trillin finds a fundamental change: “Thanks to the Internet, our movies could now be accessed with a couple of clicks on the computer — a great convenience, although I must say I miss those nights in the barn.”  Despite his nostalgia, he, too, seems to trust that the cloud-stored recordings will remain available for viewing. The expectation, and its potential failure, are revealed elsewhere.
Lest it seem that scholars of archival theory have one view and YouTube users and creators another, we point to scholars who define archives in terms of function. Their definitions invoke uses that are sympathetic with the affordances of YouTube. Manovich’s description of the database, for example, more aptly describes YouTube, which itself is run by databases on Google’s servers and uses the logic of the database to provide access to the vast stores of videos. Manovich contrasts the linear logic of the narrative with the lack of narrative structure of the database. In database form, each item in the collection is of equal value, a new story or narrative is constructed in each viewing, each path through the database selected by the users (Manovich, 2001).
As database, YouTube affords opportunities for users to access a wide array of content from the millions of users from around the globe. Within in the confines of fair use and international copyright, users reuse materials in mashups, parody, creating new narratives through these affordances of new media. Traditional archives have struggled with the tensions between access and preservation, restricting access to archival collections in order to prevent wear and damage on the unique materials. Requiring playback with the use of projectors and tape decks that may damage fragile film and videotape, original materials are placed in storage in climate controlled vaults, with access provided to copies of these originals created at considerable expense. This struggle between preservation and access is perhaps best illustrated by the decades-old debate between the Cinémathèque Française’s Henri Langlois and the U. K. National Film and Television Archive’s Ernest Lindgren.
Lindgren’s policies prioritized preservation at the expense of access, stressing the continued preservation of the original film materials in the vaults of the archives. Langlois, in contrast, believe that access was a form of advocacy. To ensure the continued preservation of the material, the moving images should be shared with audiences who would in-turn learn to appreciate the significance of moving image records to cultural history and support the archives with donations that would fund the continued preservation of the materials. While Lingren’s policies would shape contemporary moving image archival practices, Langlois’ approach mirrors that of many contemporary YouTubers, “acquire first, ask questions later.” 
Preservation on YouTube is not preservation as defined by Lindgren (the preservation of original materials), but in the tradition of Langois, as a “perpetual transmission” of uploaded content (Kessler and Shäfer, 2009). YouTube collects copies of materials. Much like traditional archives, users entrust their materials to YouTube as a repository for keeping and accessing the materials. Preservation is defined through access to the uploaded content and its persistence on the Web.
Scholarship using YouTube
YouTube is a collection curated by multitudes of users that upload and view content. It is a repository in so much as it is a place to store information. It is a database not only in its architecture, but also as a massive store of data linked together by tags, comments, and popularity ranking. By both moving beyond singular case studies and drawing on examples, we engage the strategic differences between YouTube and video/film archives in order to consider multiple/core facets of their operation.
McKee suggests that studies of YouTube place the online platform in opposition to the traditional archives, emphasizing the authority of the traditional archival repositories and assuming a lack in the digital platform, rather than drawing an equal comparison of the information resources. Revisiting his 2001 study of Australian television, McKee compares the availability of seventeen “great moments” in the collections of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA, https://www.nfsa.gov.au) and on YouTube. McKee finds a preference for YouTube, citing the breadth of clips available, the availability user commentary, the reliability of the metadata, and the intuitive searching as benefits to using the “user-friendly” platform over the traditional archives (McKee, 2011).
Searching YouTube against the titles that McKee provides does suggest some persistence in the videos that he cites. A number of videos removed from YouTube due to copyright violations have since been reposted by the commercial television studios that own the rights to publish the material. Other clips have generated a large enough fan base to be reposted by multiple users and continue to persist even after other versions have been removed. His citations no longer direct readers to the references in his article, but a diligent or persistent reader can substitute alternate versions of the originals.
Hildebrand took a different approach in his discussion 2007 discussion of copyright and cultural memory on YouTube. Hildebrand offers a typology of YouTube videos in his “Clip canon” — twelve of the “most viewed and most talked-about” videos on the platform. In this aside to the original article, he describes each exemplar and includes screenshots to illustrate the content of each video. While the URLs to specific videos are included, the videos are described as examples of a particular category of videos, and like McKee’s “great moments” can be replaced with similar videos if unavailable. Not surprisingly, as Hildebrand’s typology includes categories of user generated content, including self-documentation, vlogs, parody, animal videos, and stunts, many more of these examples are available a decade after they were originally posted. However, the persistence of these unique videos, in contrast to McKee’s television clips, insists upon the individual users to maintain their accounts with YouTube.
Juhasz offers another perspective on the scholarly use of YouTube through her experimental course, “Learning from YouTube” where students were asked to take the platform as a subject of study and as a publishing platform. The coursework has been published as a project on MIT’s Vectors platform (Juhasz, 2010). The project emulates the look and feel of the platform, linking content with tags and “YouTours” organized by theme that highlights the work of students. The left column of the site is populated by other YouTube content that exemplifies the theme. While Juhasz has control over the course-produced content embedded from her YouTube channel, some of the materials produced by other YouTubers have disappeared over time, replaced by emulated TV static, symbolizing the platform’s inability to connect to a channel and the message “This video is unavailable.” While MIT Press has committed to providing access to the project even after Vectors has ceased to publish new issues, neither the publisher nor Juhasz cannot control this outside content from YouTube.
As with McKee and Hildebrand’s missing videos, the URL persists. YouTube’s help pages state that each new video is assigned a new URL with a unique identifier, so content cannot be replaced. While users, or YouTube itself, may remove videos from the site, the unique URLs assigned to each video remain active (YouTube Help, 2017). Permalinks or persistent URLs are a common practice in digital repositories, ensuring that links to content will remain the same as content is shifted from server to server. Scholars are assured that citations including these URLs will resolve to the content they have cited. The broken links in YouTube serve as evidence that a video did exist, but little evidence of the content of the video remains. User names, post dates, removal dates, and any commentary or related content are removed along with the video, leaving little information for those who follow these links back to the source.
Articles like “Social media is scholarship” offer ever more indications that YouTube is becoming a common resource for scholars, especially those interested in media and contemporary culture (Carrigan, 2017). Standard scholarly practices, though, cannot ensure continued access for the purposes of evaluation and discussion of born-digital materials, particularly video created for YouTube.
One notable example of the challenges of accessing YouTube content occurs in the popular Vlogbrothers’ videos. Three million people around the globe subscribe to the videos created by best-selling novelist John Green and his science- and technology- oriented brother Hank Green (Gardner and Lehnert, 2016). Archiving content, however, has not been a priority for the channel’s creators. Viewers have called attention to the apparent demise of a 18 May 2012 video made by Hank Green titled “Facebook IPO — What it means;” with both comments on a subsequent 22 May 2012 video and a Reddit AMA page documenting both its one-time existence and current absence (Green, 2014; Vlogbrothers, 2012; IMDB, 2012). With the file missing from YouTube, only a video snippet contained in the response video and an IMDB citation endure. Vlogbrothers viewers articulate their interest in the piece, and scholars interested in either the channel or creators’ discussion of the monetization of online video content also lack access to the material.
While the Internet Archives preserves a limited number of YouTube videos, Lee enumerates the “risk factors” of relying on these third-party Web services for the preservation of personal digital archives (Lee, 2011; Graham, 2017). As cloud storage and Web archiving become increasingly prominent in the institutional context, questions of continuing access and fixity arise. Librarians and archivists are still trying to answer the question: “What are the pieces of digital information we need to ensure are preserved in the long term?” Scholars wishing to make use of that material and curators responsible for managing it both are concerned with the resulting level of preservation and access. Despite reservations about “one size fits all” solutions in “a very complicated environment,” Dean Krafft has argued, “We need better solutions than we have now. We are always going to be managing a set of evolving technology solutions that will change over time, and there will really never be a single vendor or open source approach that we can simply hand the problem off to.” (Krafft, 2017) In other words, commercial providers may provide part of the solution, but not the whole of it.
Researchers and practitioners have made some evaluation of YouTube’s features and uses, but have yet to assess the wide-spread notion that the platform serves archival functions. Despite assertions that YouTube is an archive, explanations of its operations raise questions about its role in ensuring access to historical information. Green has observed that revenue results, for the most part, from recent content and that as a result, there was not much point in revisiting older content (Hankschannel, 2017). In essence, this statement suggests there is little internal incentive to prioritize preservation: because the average viewer does not visit YouTube looking for older material, it is not something creators, many of whom maintain demanding production and promotion schedules, will invest their time and resources in. YouTube, in its mission statement, touts its interest in freedom of information and information access, but at present, that investment does not extend to actual archival practice. The information it ensures access to and promotes through its recommendations typically shares a particular quality: it is created by contemporary YouTubers with active accounts.
YouTubers variously describe the individuals who flock to the platform to watch their latest uploads as communities, fans, or even “my people” (Oakley, 2015). They articulate, using various vocabularies, the idea of collective and passionate interest in their online work; these statements are matched by subscriber and viewer numbers. Our analysis indicates, though, that the creators and communities alike are at risk of losing access to their own stories. Further, as academic researchers become increasingly interested in fans and fandoms, they, too, depend on this online material.
Jenkins has described YouTube as a company “run for profit and not for the collective welfare.”  We don’t invoke this description to demonize a popular platform. Instead, we call attention, simultaneously, to YouTube’s rising cultural role and demonstrable shortcomings in preservation strategies in order to argue for professional problem-solving. The Library of Congress is preserving Twitter, and its Folk Life unit preserves some audio, but moving image preservation, whether of old film or new media, remains a gap. Scholars contend that YouTube is part of a “media ecology,”  “part of a larger ecosystem of connective media ... which arises from the matrix of culture,”  but if its content is not preserved, the ecosystem breaks down. Institutional preservation of YouTube video is, at best, limited, and documentation practices are insufficient to render references to YouTube content in scholarly research meaningful.
Where institutions with archival missions develop preservation and access priorities relative to content, those policies do not necessarily align with contemporary use of moving images like YouTube videos. As YouTube gains prominence, commercially and culturally, we must recognize the dynamic role of the platform and its content by seeking ways to avoid an access crisis. We observe that the ebook pricing model that pushed the American Library Association to form its Presidential Task Force on Equitable Access to Electronic Content/EQUACC was forced to prioritize issues due to its limited longevity, and ebooks rose to the forefront of its concerns: “On February 25, 2011, Library Journal broke the news that HarperCollins would cap its loans of all new e-books (primarily obtained by public libraries through OverDrive) to 26, after which time the library could negotiate a reduced price license for subsequent access to the title.”  In the case of YouTube, the needs and priorities of different entities — creators, scholars, and archival institutions — vary, and dialogue among them may help solve burgeoning problems.
The challenges of preserving access to YouTube content are not new. Archives have embraced third-party software such as the Internet Archives’ Archive-It Web archiving service to collect and preserve digital information posted to the Web. While the tool is capable of crawling YouTube’s vast archive of materials and capturing both the static content posted to YouTube and the uploaded videos, use of third-party tools to capture content is technically a violation of YouTube’s Terms of Service (YouTube, 2010). This, however, is a violation that moving image archivists have cautioned against (Cocciolo, 2017).
Instead of focusing on the affordances of cloud storage and online access to digital resources, or of seeing YouTube video as an extension to or update of older moving images like film, we believe that creators, scholars, and institutions will, in the long run, be better served by thinking of online video as akin to a squirrel studied by historians in natural sciences and adopting similar preservation strategies. This means negotiating for the right to download content for limited access, and preserving the content in institutional repositories alongside the scholarship referencing the content. If humanities scholars are going to begin understanding their sources as data, as archives, then institutional repositories must also adapt their policies to begin to collect, preserve, and provide access to these data for the long term.
About the authors
Lindsay Kistler Mattock is Assistant Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa.
E-mail: : lindsay-mattock [at] uiowa [dot] edu
Colleen Theisen is Outreach and Engagement Librarian in Special Collections & University Archives at the University of Iowa.
E-mail: colleen-theisen [at] uiowa [dot] edu
Jennifer Burek Pierce is Associate Professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa.
E-mail: jennifer-burek-pierce [at] uiowa [dot] edu
The authors wish to thank Trina E. Roberts for her ideas about natural history collections, especially for scientific reproducibility, and Nerdfighteria for its determined documentation of a missing YouTube video.
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Received 10 November 2017; revised 22 December 2017; accepted 25 December 2017.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
A case for digital squirrels: Using and preserving YouTube for popular culture research
by Lindsay Kistler Mattock, Colleen Theisen, and Jennifer Burek Pierce.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 1 - 1 January 2018