Try and visit the Internet Archive at www.archive.org, type ’www.ox.ac.uk’ in the so-called Wayback Machine and press ’Take me back’, and you will find out that Oxford University had a web page as early as 1997 — and you can even see how it looked, and how it has changed in the following years.
What can we learn from this?
First, that the importance of the web is growing. For more than a decade more and more of our societal, cultural and political activities either take place on the web or are closely related to the web — since the mid-90’s you simply could not be a university, a company, or a political party without having a website.
Second, an internet archive reveals the elusiveness of the web. Although we may believe that the web is in itself an archive, where we can always find what has been online, this is almost never the case — some scholars maintain that 40% of what is on the web today is deleted one year later, another 40% has been changed, and only 20% is still there.
Thirdly, we can learn that if we want to document our present or study the past on the web we have to archive it, now, while it is still there. ’We’ can be either individuals, scholars, or (trans)national web archives such as the Internet Archive (based in the USA), or the British Library.
Indeed, web archives have already been established, the first one being the above mentioned Internet Archive, founded by Brewster Kahle as a non-profit organisation in 1996 with the bold aim of archiving the internet.
In 1997, the UK Government Web Archive was established with a view to preserving UK government information published on the web (by the National Archives), and later came the UK Web Archive (2004, the British Library) which started with making special collections (‘London Terrorist Attack, ‘Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, 2012’, ‘Blogs’, etc.) and has recently started archiving the entire UK web, based on a new legal deposit legislation that became effective 6 April 2013 (with the five UK legal deposit libraries).
Why does web archiving matter, then? It matters in the same way that the preserving of any other part of our cultural heritage matters, be that kitchen utensils, buildings, warships, or media such as newspapers, radio, and television. All these objects and media constitute the source material for future historians to write our history, and thereby to shed light on our present.
In contrast to ’old’ media, however, archiving the web is particularly important since this essential part of our communicative infrastructure is disappearing at an unprecedented pace. This makes it even more important to bear in mind what Bob Dylan sang in 1963: ’The present now will later be past’.
Professor Niels Brügger will be holding a seminar entitled: “Web Archiving and Web Archives, Why does it Matter?” on Wednesday 25 September 2013 12:00 – 13:30 at Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, 1 St Giles Oxford OX1 3JS. For registration telephone +44 (0)1865 287210