Why historians should care about web archiving

Someone said to me at a conference recently (not his exact words), “if we can’t get historians interested in web archives, then who can we reach ?” But so far, there hasn’t been much visible engagement between contemporary historians and web archives, even though those archives are now well established at national memory institutions such as the Library of Congress or the British Library. [Full disclosure: the latter employs me, but this post represents a personal view, not the Library’s.] And as an historian who has been involved with web archives since before coming to the BL, I think this needs to change.

The evidence is mounting of how vulnerable the web actually is. One study found that 11% of content shared via social media will have disappeared a year later, and another 7% each year after that – a startling rate. And since there was a time lag between the migration of the archival record into a digital-only mode and the establishment of web archives, there is already a large hole in the record from perhaps the mid-nineties to the mid-noughties. A recent post of mine over at the UK Web Archive blog showed just how significant are some of the sites that now exist only in web archives; and that’s only the ones the UKWA managed to capture in time. We can only guess at what is now lost forever.

So, in twenty or thirty years’ time, historians of the very late twentieth century will have reason to regret that no-one thought to keep their primary sources safe for them. But there is another problem. It is a brave historian who writes on the very recent past, a remote subject indeed; I myself wrote an article in 2004 that extended up to 1990, and not without some unease about the hostages to scholarly fortune it gave. And so most of the historians who have the greatest personal stake in archiving the web right now haven’t yet entered the profession. I would argue that historians are uniquely well-placed to view the present in relation to the past, and thus to anticipate those aspects of the present for which there is most need for a record. But it would take a significant change in culture such that historians working now start to take a hand in preserving sources for our successors.

“But this isn’t my job”, the response might be. “Surely this is what archivists are for ? (It always used to be.)” Granted, in a pre-digital world, institutional archivists in government, civil society, the churches, concentrated on capturing unpublished materials produced in-house, took in those personal archives that were offered to them, and left the copyright libraries to pick up books and journals. If the ephemeral stuff in the cracks didn’t survive, then such was life. Now, the volume of words is so much greater, and the means of disseminating them so dispersed, that archivists as a profession (already an undervalued and underpaid one, I might add) can’t hope even to see, let alone arrange to capture everything of note.

So: we need a new model of archival curation, based on a partnership between archivists, scholars and the public. The technical means are there; it simply needs a new form of engagement, and we historians can help make it happen.

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