A black hole in digital history

I found an interesting article yesterday by David Smith, technology correspondent for the Observer, considering the dangers of the internet when trying to preserve information for history.

Historians face a “black hole” of lost material unless urgent action is taken to preserve websites and other digital records, the head of the British Library has warned.

Just as families store digital photos on computers which might never be passed on to their descendants, so Britain’s cultural heritage is at risk as the internet evolves and technologies become obsolete, says Lynne Brindley, the library’s chief executive.

Writing in today’s Observer, Brindley cites two examples of losses overseas. When Barack Obama was inaugurated as US president last week, all traces of George Bush disappeared from the White House website, including a booklet entitled 100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration, which is no longer accessible…

…Historians have become increasingly concerned that while the Domesday Book, written on sheepskin in 1086, is still easily accessible, the software for many decade-old computer files – including thousands of government records – already renders them unreadable. The ephemera of emails, text messages and online video add to the headache of the 21st-century archivist.

This really is pretty enlightening as I always had the vague idea that the internet was a godsend for ordinary people’s personal opinions on events to be easily recorded. Now it’s clear that, although the beauty of the internet is that ideas can be circulated quickly and universally, at the same time it also means that this information can be deleted and forgotten just as quickly! While a written page has to be at least burnt to be destroyed and forgotten, digital information can be lost with the click of a button or due to technology becoming obsolete – a bit worrying I must admit!

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