Preserving the Internet

How archiving online content can make history


| February 8, 2007


Many of us can't remember the last time we put pen to paper and wrote out a letter. It's so much easier to type a quick email, zip it through a maze of cables and wires, and have it delivered to the recipient's inbox within minutes. Virtual mail has become the preferred medium for nearly all occupations. But according to an article in PhysicsWeb by Robert P. Crease, each time you click the 'send' button, a little piece of history might be lost.

Imagine twenty, fifty, even two hundred years from now. What will become of all of the emails, websites, and web-based information that we currently take for granted? Will the great essays, scientific discoveries, and original art born on the internet be lost forever simply because a server shut down? Unless historians think beyond paper and come up with a way to preserve our digital footprints, that's a lot of ideas that could end up in the garbage icon.

According to Crease, advancements in communication technology 'are good for scientists, encouraging rapid communication and stripping out hierarchies.' But the latest fear among historians -- who rely on such correspondence to chronicle scientific developments, reactions to them, and to better understand scientists themselves -- is 'whether email and other electronic data will be preserved at all.' Luckily, there are several organizations taking steps to ensure that all hope -- and information -- is not lost.

As reported by Crease, historians at the American Institute of Physics charged with tracking the history of physics in industry have discovered some interesting findings regarding the influence of communication technology on science. Among them: 'PowerPoint... can stultify scientific discussion and make it less free-wheeling; information also tends to be dumbed down when scientists submit PowerPoint presentations in place of formal reports.'

Working on the preservation front, Crease also notes that the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center has collaborated with several institutions to create the Persistent Archives Testbed (PAT) project. Launched in 2003, the project has brought together researchers to test a model for electronic records management. As explained on PAT's website, should the research prove successful, the system would introduce a 'cost-effective application and architecture for preserving electronic records.' Translation: Important discoveries found or discussed via email could be saved from the vacuum of cyberspace.

Of course, scientists aren't the only ones with data worth protecting. In San Francisco, the nonprofit Internet Archive is building an internet library -- a kind of Library of Alexandria for the 21st century. The organization's website states that, 'If libraries are to continue to foster education and scholarship in this era of digital technology, it's essential for them to extend those functions into the digital world.' In collaboration with institutions such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, the Internet Archive seeks to trace the evolution of the internet, track language changes, revive dead links, establish international internet centers, and exercise our 'right to remember.' A search feature on the site called the Wayback Machine allows users to browse through 85 billion web pages to find pages from as early as 1996, including those that no longer exist. Simply type in the URL of the site you're looking for and a list, sorted by year, pops up with links to each former incarnation.