Carolyn Runyon and Stephen Urgola

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Images courtesy of Tom Misenti, Naward Hatem, and Rare Books and Special Collections Library, American University in Cairo.

The American University in Cairo was, geographically and literally, in the middle of February’s 18-day revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s president. Although the majority of the university relocated to New Cairo in 2008, its historic campus on Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protest movement, remained. During the most violent phase of the revolution, police snipers used the rooftops of faculty buildings to fire on protestors in the square. University on the Square: Documenting Egypt’s 21st-Century Revolution is an AUC-run project that collects videos, photos and oral-history testimonies from activists on the square, including the university’s own students and staff, and archives the countless websites, social media sites, Twitter feeds and YouTube pages related to the events. Carolyn Runyon, the university’s digital collections archivist, started her job the day before the revolution began. Stephen Urgola has been the university archivist since 2001, and is director of its Records Management programme. They spoke to Nadja Korinth, a documentary filmmaker, musician and journalist based in Berlin.

Nadja Korinth How did you experience the revolution?
Carolyn Runyon I spent a number of days during the revolution in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. During the revolution, I tried to live as normally as possible, within the restraints of the curfew. When the revolution seemed poised to turn violent, I took a US Embassy evacuation flight to Istanbul, where I spent a week. I returned a few days before February 11, when I witnessed Egyptians and expats celebrating Mubarak’s resignation in the streets of Maadi. It was an overwhelming and unforgettable experience.
Stephen Urgola My wife and I were in Cairo throughout the majority of the 18-day revolution. While we made a few visits to the demonstrations, the most vivid memory I have is of a police siege of demonstrators on a rooftop just across the river from our apartment. Despite being pelted by tear-gas canisters, the protesters waved a giant Egyptian flag throughout the afternoon until after dark.

NK Can you describe how and when the project got started?
CR University on the Square is a collaborative project that captures the recent events in Egypt, collecting information and objects using a variety of methods. The first documentation strategy was the 2011 Egyptian Revolution Web Archive, which uses Archive-It software to capture websites. Subsequently, we began collecting photos, videos and memorabilia from activists involved in the demonstrations. We have also been conducting oral history interviews with AUC students, faculty and staff who observed or participated in the protests.

NK What’s the ratio between “classic media” and social media in what you have collected?
CR The Egyptian Revolution Web Archive features many traditional sources of information, such as news sites, but we have been actively capturing blogs, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos and Facebook pages as well. To augment the social-media aspect of our collection, we are soliciting suggestions from AUCians, Egyptians and the global community through University on the Square. We have already received a number of suggestions for websites to add to the web archive through the project. We hope that our efforts to capture social media will provide documentary evidence of the role of social-networking sites in the revolution.

NK How many websites have you archived so far?
CR To date, we have archived 4,157,510 pages, most of which are distinct. Criteria for inclusion in the Egyptian Revolution Web Archive is based on content. For example, if a web page featured the words “Tahrir Square” or “Egyptian demonstrations”, we captured those pages automatically. We also selected specific websites to archive, such as blogs of Egyptian activists or sites of political groups. We tried to cast as wide a net as possible in order to develop the most comprehensive resource for future scholarship.

NK What were some of the challenges you ran into with this project?
CR A challenge with documenting websites is that as events unfolded so fast, they outpaced our ability to capture websites. Some sites that had interesting pro-regime messages had been completely changed by the time we were able to archive them.

NK What are your feelings about what happened, and is still happening?
CR It’s an exciting time to be in Egypt. I have been really impressed with the Egyptian people for conducting a peaceful revolution, as well as maintaining the momentum of the demonstrations. I look forward to the elections to be held later this year.
SU It’s not every day you get to archive a revolution, so it is a unique opportunity to be in Egypt at this time. I’m very excited that the University on the Square project lets me come into contact with people who played important roles in such a major event.

NK What are you favourite contributions or stories?
CR My favourite contributions include personal accounts written by student activists who spent time in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations. These stories inspire as well as capturing the spirit of the revolution. I am looking forward to listening to some of the oral histories as well. It’s always interesting to hear first-hand accounts of the events and compare them to coverage in the media.
SU The oral histories have been fascinating. The photographs and videos that document the events that unfolded around the historic campus, including dramatic scenes of clashes between protesters and police, are also an incredible source for the revolution.

NK What sort of an experience, professionally and personally, was it to be archiving such an historic event almost in real time?
CR It’s a unique experience. Generally speaking, archivists deal with historic materials on paper – books, photographs and other print media. The University on the Square project documents websites, digital photographs, videos taken on cell phones and social media. It’s exciting and challenging to create new workflows for acquiring, organising and making available online the vast amount of digital information about the revolution.
SU A real challenge was the need to be so proactive as events unfolded, realising that with the kind of media formats we were dealing with we could not wait for material to accumulate – we had to actively seek it out from the start.

NK Did you ever think this would be part of your work when you came to the AUC?
CR I started working at AUC one day before the protests in Tahrir Square began, so I had no idea that I would play a role in documenting a revolution as it unfolded. It’s definitely an exciting way to start a new job!
SU We saw this coming, that’s why we hired Carolyn when we did… Seriously, our library and archives do aim to document modern Egyptian society, so our mission includes reflecting political and social changes. Political changes of some magnitude were expected for a while, since Mubarak is over 80 years old. But I never expected the events to be as dramatic as this.

NK What sort of feedback have you had so far?
CR We’ve enjoyed pretty enthusiastic responses so far. Protestors and observers have been generous with their time, signing up for oral history interviews and donating their photos and videos of the protests in Tahrir. Of course, University on the Square would be impossible without the co-operation of the AUC activist community, including students, faculty and staff.

NK Can you describe the amount of information that exists about the recent events in relation to previous regime changes or revolutions? For example, the Egyptian revolution of 1952?
CR The amount of material in the university archives on the response of university faculty, students and staff to the 1952 revolution is far smaller than what we have already collected for recent events. This is due to the diverse avenues ordinary Egyptians have for documenting their experiences. In fact, according to Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics, from 2000 to 2010 the number of internet users in Egypt grew by 3,691 per cent. Egyptians are taking advantage of increased access to social media, as well as developments in personal freedoms, such as the ability to record and comment on political events without fear of severe punishment from the government. §

  • Carolyn Runyon and Stephen Urgola