Saving for digital posterity

20 May 2013

Like catching soup in a sieve? Ralph Adam explores how we go about preserving today’s digital content.

With everything seemingly in digital form nowadays, who has not been frustrated by disappearing content? You might be hunting for last year’s rail time-table or the excellent menu you enjoyed on your anniversary, the wording of an old job ad or that fascinating nanotechnology blog you didn’t think to copy at the time. But where is it?

Resources as important as social media reactions to the 7/7 London bombings or the 2008 financial crisis have already been lost forever. Reasons can include: cancelled subscriptions, sites ‘tidied’ by webmasters, lack of effective archiving policies or web pages that have simply faded away.

In the past, many people (of whom Pepys is probably the best known) honed their thoughts carefully in diaries for the benefit of posterity. Politicians love publishing their diaries, but, for the rest of us, there is only the hope that, when we are long gone, a researcher may one day take an interest in those random thoughts. Nowadays, however, we record and revise everything instantly in blogs, wikis or tweets without a thought for future biographers and historians. Diaries and manuscript notes have gone the way of dodos.

In order to remedy this, governments are creating new forms of legal deposit; the requirement that copies of everything published must be provided to specified institutions. The idea of legal deposit dates back to a French ordinance of 1537 (and, perhaps, much further even, to the ancient Library of Alexandria). In the UK, the responsible bodies are the British Library (BL) plus five other libraries.

Originally promulgated for printed books, legal deposit has been gradually extended to cover all types of material. Since April 2013, the law in Britain has included electronic media. The aim is to collect, preserve and provide access to the increasing proportion of cultural and intellectual output that appears in, often ephemeral, digital form, including blogs, tweets, e-books and, indeed, the entire ‘UK’ Web domain. The BL wants to preserve for ever an image of life in Britain during the 21st century, with the first ‘trawl’ of the Web due to take place in late-2013.

Not everyone is impressed by the plan: one commentator, The Independent’s Alice Jones, compared the BL’s project to ‘catching soup in a sieve’! For her, the prospect of millions of tweets and status updates being harvested and sitting alongside Dickens and Mantel is alarming, bringing to mind thoughts of future generations clicking through Instagrams of cappuccino foam and thinking: “So, this is how they lived in 2013. But… why?”

There are other issues, too: unlike old-style ephemera, such as tickets or adverts, many messages have little content. Knowledge management is another problem to be resolved: how do you select, catalogue, classify and index tweets and status updates effectively? And to use this material, people will have to travel to designated reading rooms.

Nevertheless, the plan to preserve and make available digital archives and data-sets on such a scale, while mind-boggling, is a heroic one that will give more than just a view of British life in 2013.

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