An interesting article in the Observer discusses how websites are often not being saved for prosperity, citing as an example the official website of George Bush's presidency at whitehouse.gov, which has now been replaced by a much-lauded new version by the incoming Obama administration. The article has been written in response to a comment piece, published in the same paper, by the head of the British Library Lynne Bridley, which is printed under the somewhat over-the-top title of 'We're in danger of losing our memories' (Brindley coins the phrase 'personal digital disorder'). In it, she says:
"At the exact moment Barack Obama was inaugurated, all traces of President Bush vanished from the White House website, replaced by images of and speeches by his successor. Attached to the website had been a booklet entitled 100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration - they may never know them now. When the website changed, the link was broken and the booklet became unavailable."
The booklet she refers to was located at http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/bushrecord/documents/appendix_acc_for_web.pdf, which now returns a '301 Moved Permanently' response, along with the new URL of http://www.whitehouse.gov/agenda/, which doesn't contain the booklet at all. So, on this level, she's right - the URI has been broken. Not cool. Brindley goes on to say:
"People often assume that commercial organisations such as Google are collecting and archiving this kind of material - they are not. The task of capturing our online intellectual heritage and preserving it for the long term falls, quite rightly, to the same libraries and archives that have over centuries systematically collected books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings and which remain available in perpetuity, thanks to these institutions."
Intriguingly, there's no mention of the well-known Internet Archive organisation, whose Wayback Machine has saved my bacon a few times when accidentally deleting content from websites. And the Google reference is intriguing, as, at the time of writing, if you search for '100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration' and click 'View as HTML', you can still see a version of the original PDF document. Still, this may not work for long.
It didn't take me too long to find a copy of the original PDF though, as the whole of the George Bush version of whitehouse.gov has been archived at georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov, from where you can find the document at http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/infocus/bushrecord/documents/appendix_acc_for_web.pdf
- i.e. the exact same URL where it was originally located, only with a different domain name.
This official George Bush Administration Website Archive seems to now be administered by the George Bush Presidential Library, which falls into the tradition of Presidential Libraries administered by the US National Archives. I don't pretend to understand how all this works, but it seems to be all fairly well thought-out, and preserves the 'digital heritage' which Brindley suggests has been lost. It's clearly not as discoverable as it could be though (Brindley didn't seem to spot it), and perhaps the Obama web team could look into the feasibility of preserving all those old URLs by redirecting them to the corresponding page on the archived site.
Looking forward, people like Brian Kelly might be wondering how future archiving teams will cope with with President Obama's use of YouTube and 10 Downing Street's use of Twitter and Flickr. Tricky indeed, but not impossible (Obama's YouTube video address is at least also available as an MPEG download), and perhaps ultimately we shouldn't let the potential problems of archiving put us off from using new ways of communicating online. As far as I'm aware, the phone calls of world leaders aren't recorded and archived either.
That said, the Observer article also quotes Tristram Hunt from Queen Mary College as saying "we're producing much more information these days than we used to, and not all of it is necessary. Do we want to keep the Twitter account of Stephen Fry [...] I don't think we necessarily do." I'm not sure the 63,634 followers (at current count) of @stephenfry on Twitter would quite agree with that...