Anyone who works with web archives quickly becomes used to the fact that most people have not even heard of them – even fewer understand what they are and where you might be able to access them. In 2016, however, it seemed as though web archives began to filter into the public consciousness, to move from the technology pages of the more serious newspapers to the political and even cultural sections. In May 2016, for example, the BBC announced plans to close its Food website, removing approximately 11,000 well-used recipes from search engine results. There was an immediate public outcry – that combination of the BBC and food – and also some very welcome publicity for the value of web archives. The Mirror, for example, noted that ‘If all else fails, the Internet Archive has a record of almost all the BBC Food recipes (11,282 to be precise)’. Similarly, The Independent reported that ‘The easiest way to find any specific recipes is to head to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which keeps a catalogue of almost every website ever published’, with the subheading to the article warning that this ‘close call should remind us to store the websites that we care about’. The British Library got in on the act as well, blogging that ‘We have today instigated a further crawl of the BBC website with the specific aim of ensuring that we save the recipes from the food pages. We can also report that the Internet Archive, Library of Alexandria and the National Library of Iceland have also captured these pages so their future is assured’. Even more encouragingly, it was notable that in many cases below-the-line commenters independently volunteered web archiving, and especially the Internet Archive, as a solution to the problem.
Then in the autumn came the twentieth anniversary of the Internet Archive, which received extensive international coverage, and also served to promote the wider sector and the importance of digital preservation generally. In October 2016 Le Monde wrote that ‘Depuis deux décennies, la fondation Internet Archive, avec d’autres institutions comme la BNF, consigne soigneusement la mémoire du Web pour les générations futures’; the Irish Times marked the occasion with an article reflecting on ‘A worldwide effort to stop the web losing its memory’. But the real turning point was a political one – the US presidential election. Web archives were cited to verify or refute claims made during the election campaign (by the Huffington Post and The Guardian among others). Journalists were beginning to realise the potential of this rich and diverse digital record of the past two decades. And then, following the election result, the Internet Archive announced that it would be raising funds to move a copy of its data to Canada because of concerns about possible restrictions. In the febrile atmosphere after the election, media interest was inevitable. Finally, suggesting that this increased interest may live on into 2017, the New Year saw more coverage of the unveiling of the Trump and White House archives – ‘transparency and history as data’ (Forbes). After twenty years, it feels as though we may be a little closer to not having to explain what web archives are, and why digital preservation matters.
This blog post was first published by the Digital Preservation Coalition.