Monday, April 20, 2009...7:54 am

The internet really does destroy history

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I posted recently on how the internet destroys history – and gratifyingly it seems I am not alone in my fears.
Thanks to Unbound reader Lucian Hudson for alerting me to this story from Australia, in which the National Library of Australia warns of a “cultural black hole” for future historians if web material is not archived properly.
It’s a slightly different slant – the Library notes that web material simply isn’t archived, and the fact that so much of our cultural expression is put online instead of on paper now means that much of this gets lost.

Library manager of web archiving, Paul Koerbin, said that with everything from government documents to personal photos and video clips now being published exclusively online, the transient, dynamic nature of the web meant that much of this information would be lost over time.
“There is a serious issue regarding the loss of our digital cultural heritage,” he said.
“We are losing history … the fact is there will be ‘black holes’ that future researchers will have to deal with.”

The story is a follow-up to comments from Lynne Brindley, head of the British Library, who commented on this in January (OK, so I’m not as ahead of the curve as I thought – I just missed this at the time.)

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. Historians and citizens of the future will find a black hole in the knowledge base of the 21st century.

The web [and other digital collaborative media] is fabulous for  interaction and networking – building up networks and sharing  information [or trivia, often]. But it’s less good for maintaining  archives of data. Digital information is the most  fragile of all. We think it lasts forever – but actually it has a very  short shelf life. All you need is for someone to stop paying their web  host and a lovingly developed archive of useful niche information can  vanish into the ether as if it never existed.

Even if it is backed up onto some other digital medium, it is very  likely that over time that becomes obsolete – Zip drives? Optical disks? In just a few years if you don’t keep updating your hardware, software  drivers and operating system all together, you end up with legacy  material that is completely inaccessible.

This happened to me with a short film I made in Director 1.0. Now I can’t find the software to play it – later versions of Director are too advanced.

In comparison, as a storage medium, paper  is ideal – it lasts for centuries if handled right. And all you need do to access it is turn the pages. [I do vaguely remember reading that the British Library is  now having to maintain a range of computer systems to access digital information in its various forms – though I can’t remember where I read  that, if it’s true].  

Ironically, of course, digitisation makes fragile ancient artefacts available to researchers in a way that was impossible before. The British Library has just digitised its collection of 17th and 18th century newspapers, bringing them truly into the wider public domain for the first time. But the newspapers themselves lasted more than 200 years – not something I anticipate the digital records doing necessarily.

The main problem is that everyone [me included to come extent] has  confused the one with the other. The internet is seen as a repository of  information that supersedes paper – rather than complementing it. And of  course, that’s because it is cheaper, easier and takes up less space.

All very interesting. I think digital media are fabulous in terms of  democratising access to publishing. *Anyone* can be a publisher now. But  it’s not so great in terms of assigning value to information and  archiving it.


  • Do you know
    They try to save websites frequently to store some kind of internet archive.
    Technical development is a problem, too (no, it’s not… is it?) because users want to have well-working software and ask for newer versions all the time…

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