It is 2031 and a researcher wants to study what London’s bloggers were saying about the riots taking place in their city in 2011. Many of the relevant websites have long since disappeared, so she turns to the archives to find out what has been preserved. But she comes up against a brick wall: much of the material was never stored or has been only partially archived. It will be impossible to get the full picture.
This scenario highlights an important issue for future research – and one that has received scant attention. How can the massive number of websites on the internet – which exist for just 100 days on average before being changed or deleted – be safeguarded for future scholars to explore?
The extent to which content disappears without trace from the web is worrying, says Kath Woodward, head of the department of sociology at The Open University and a participant in the British Library’s Researchers and the UK Web Archive project, which aims to involve researchers in building special collections.
Not enough academics, she believes, are engaging with the topic. “We are taking it for granted that such material will be there, but we need to be attentive. We have a responsibility to future generations of researchers.”
Read full story, and note that the British Library’s giving it a go! In many ways this is a shift, but in others a continuity of issues that historians have battled with for years (e.g. the National Archives only archives about 3% of government papers, so we’ll never get the full story). See also Ann Mroz’s take.