Capitol Alert

Want to count the times he said ‘Make Mexico pay’? San Francisco archive can help

It might seem these days that you are watching the 45th president every time you turn on television news. Now a small group of web librarians is making it possible to see even more of him.

The Trump Archive, open to the public since January, includes more than 900 of Donald Trump’s televised speeches, rallies, debates and interviews. The Trump trove is a part of the Television Archive, which resides at what’s considered the most comprehensive digital library, the Internet Archive.

“We want to be able to help the public and make it easier for people to search,” said Nancy Watzman, managing editor of the Television Archive. “There is amazing stuff in there that we’d like to unlock.”

The archive is nonpartisan, available to people who consider news about the president either infuriating or validating, who want to search for times he said “believe me,” “make Mexico pay” or “save jobs,” or investigate topics like immigration and health care. More than 700 of its video statements have been fact-checked by outside fact-checking partners.

The idea for the Trump Archive began percolating after staff and volunteers at the Television Archive curated last year’s political ads. When Trump was elected, “we were inspired,” said Watzman. “It was a confluence of things. We had been going in that direction and we thought, hey, we can create this special collection.”

The Internet Archive, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, is run out of a former Christian Science Church in a quiet residential neighborhood near Golden Gate Park. The fact that the building, with its the imposing white columns, was modeled on neoclassical Greek architecture is not lost on anyone inside. Founder Brewster Kahle, an internet entrepreneur, intended the archive to be a digital version of the Great Library of Alexandria, the ancient world’s biggest repository of the written word.

The archive’s mission statement, “universal access to all knowledge,” admittedly is “grandiose,” says Roger Macdonald, director of the Television Archive, but is not as daunting or as expensive as it might seem. The archive, containing digitized books, movies, games, radio and television programs, music and more than 280 billion website captures dating back to 2009, operates mostly on donations, subscription services and charges for digitizing books.

“We are cheapskates,” said Macdonald, before leading a weekly tour of the archive’s building. “All of us are working for much less than we would in Silicon Valley. We are mission driven.”

Far from looking like a futuristic, high-tech office, the headquarters still largely resembles the church it once was, plus some office space and exhibits. Lobby displays include a machine that physically scans pages of books, one by one, and chairs and headphones for people interested in listening to music from the archive.

The church sanctuary has rows of pews that are used for staff and public meetings, as well as a collection of waist-high figurines resembling each of more than 100 people who’ve worked for the archive for at least three years.

Blinking internet servers sit unobtrusively in the back, part of a network around the building that allows access to the digital library. The archive’s continually expanding collection of web snapshots is held in what’s called the Wayback Machine.

“People are nervous that information could disappear,” said Watzman, either from funding cuts, updating and intentional editing. For example, she says, the Internet Archive has snapshots of first lady Melania Trump’s website – a version saying she had a college degree and a later one saying she paused her studies – that helped clarify a dispute about her education.

“We have what it said originally and what it was changed to,” she said.

The operations center is downstairs in the former Sunday school space. There, the server dedicated to the Trump Archive – smaller than a dishwasher – sits on top of a cabinet.

The creation of a television archive required, said Macdonald, a “new cognitive model.” People assumed there were print archives but didn’t have the same expectation for television. Television stations kept their own collections, often incomplete and not open to the public.

About 10 years ago, Macdonald, a co-founder of Link TV, the biggest independent, noncommercial network, started thinking about ways to create a searchable archive of television data. Why not, he thought, use closed captions to index and search programs?

The results weren’t perfect, particularly for those without advanced computer skills. And the clips had to be curated by hand, meaning that, for now, a few librarians are watching a lot of President Trump on television.

“We are good at sucking things in, but not as good at helping people get access to it,” Macdonald said.

So far the special Trump collection has drawn about 1.5 million visitors and is considered a prototype for future projects – including creating a library of television news clips on key members of Congress from both parties.

“There is all this attention on Trump for obvious reasons,” said Watzman, “but we don’t see it exclusively about Trump forever.”

Macdonald hopes in the future that the archive will get a boost from machine learning tools that can zero in on discussion of particular topics and help determine what should be archived.

“Part of why we’re doing this is to evangelize the perspective that access to media provides uncommon insight into knowledge,” he said. “There is so much to be explored.”

The collection of political ads last year sparked interest of journalists who used it to determine which stations ran which ads and for how long. The Trump Archive may also offer new ways to consume television news.

“Here’s a resource that anyone can make use of,” said Nicholas Taylor, a program manager and web archivist at Stanford University Libraries who’s been an expert witness for the Internet Archive. “That seems pretty powerful to me. You don’t have to have crazy hardware and crazy software and a legion of interns to do it anymore.”

Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.