Websites 'must be saved for history'

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Historians face a "black hole" of lost material unless urgent action is taken to preserve websites and other digital records, the head of the British Library has warned.

Just as families store digital photos on computers which might never be passed on to their descendants, so Britain's cultural heritage is at risk as the internet evolves and technologies become obsolete, says Lynne Brindley, the library's chief executive.

Writing in today's Observer, Brindley cites two examples of losses overseas. When Barack Obama was inaugurated as US president last week, all traces of George Bush disappeared from the White House website, including a booklet entitled 100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration, which is no longer accessible.

There were more than 150 websites relating to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, she continues, but these, too, vanished instantly at the end of the games and are now stored only by the National Library of Australia. "If websites continue to disappear in the same way as those on President Bush and the Sydney Olympics - perhaps exacerbated by the current economic climate that is killing companies - the memory of the nation disappears too," Brindley writes. "Historians of the future, citizens of the future, will find a black hole in the knowledge base of the 21st century."

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Maarja Krusten - 1/25/2009


This is the first time I've seen NARA refer to a "library" prior to the opening of a physical library. Its practice in the past was to refer to the collections as projects. See
for an example of a reference to the Clinton Presidential Materials Project. See
for links to all the existing libraries.

Maarja Krusten - 1/25/2009

When the Clinton administration ended on January 20, 2001, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) moved content from the White House website to its servers. Clinton-era sites still are searchable at

Perhaps the Bush-era sites will show up at the Bush Presidential Material Project's NARA-run website. (Prior to the dedication of a NARA-administered Presidential Library, the functional unit which administers a former President's records typically is called a Project.)

Some iterations of the GWB-era WH site also are available through the private-sector Wayback machine. See
The Wayback machine captured a number of versions of the Bush era WH site between January 2001 and March 2008. See*/

Of course, whether or not a government website is preserved through what NARA once referred to as a "web harvest," the source documents should have been preserved in the course of federal records management. A website such as that displayed by the White House is akin to an anthology which pulls together excerpts from multipe sources. Lose the book with the anthology and you still can go back to the separate, discrete published book from which the editors gathered excerpts.

Within White House records, which the law requires be preserved, there would be an electronic press release series, a speech series, a photo series, within which some of the items posted to the web could be accessed. So it is not as if the source documents themselves disappear, never again to be seen by historians. Even the list of administration accomplishments cited in the article would have existed while GWB was in office as a discrete record within the holdings of the White House Office of Records Management. After a President leaves office, such material is transferred to the National Archives.

The article makes some good points about media obsolescence. (Digital data requires attention to migration and/or emulation.) Problems can arise due to hardware, including media, or software. Sony issued the CD version of H. R. Haldeman's Diaries in 1994. You cannot reach its Table of Contents on modern day computers. Sony set up to the CD to start with some video clips and the program searches in vain for a Quicktime 1.1.1 driver which no longer appears on present day computers. So the CD locks up if played on newer computers. Only if you kept an old computer from the mid- or late-1990s can you still play it for research.

Maarja (historian and former NARA archivist)