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Digital media and the coming gap in the historical record

During the early days of the Internet, web proponents were quick to make expansive claims about the benefits that the online age would usher in. The web would revolutionize the work environment, they said.  It would engender a new era of political activism.  It would preserve all human knowledge online, forever.

Some of these claims have turned out to be prescient. Others are still open to debate. And some linger in the murky twilight of being true, but only partly so. The promise of the web as the ultimate archival medium falls into this last category.

While the Internet contains an incredible amount of information, the life cycle of web-based material is anything but certain. The web preservation specialists at the Internet Archive estimate that the average lifespan of a web page is a mere 45-75 days, with the deleted data quickly escaping into the nether regions of cyberspace. Some of this information is lost through periodic site updates, and some through the inevitable attrition of websites themselves. Particularly in the highly fluid world of personal blogs, once an owner loses interest and neglects to pay the annual hosting fee, the site eventually disappears, to be replaced by the omnipresent grave marker of the Internet age: the "404 error." Even the most diligent website owners are hampered by the ultimate impediment of their own mortality. Beyond that horizon, no site can survive without outside support.


A challenge for history
The fragile nature of the web should concern us all because of the Internet's increasingly central role in disseminating knowledge, and its parallel role as the host for a vast amount of original, Internet-only information. The web's centrality, coupled with its impermanence, presents a unique and pressing concern: the specter of valuable cultural information rapidly disappearing down the memory hole.

Because of its vibrant online culture, Minnesota is particularly susceptible to this problem. In recent years, our state has produced a raft of prolific online authors of all ideological stripes and personal backgrounds. This has also been the case with web-based news reporters and public-affairs commentators. Minnesota has been an innovator in the creation of all-digital news outlets, and our state's plethora of sites frequently cover stories that are not duplicated by other media. 

A pressing question that is raised by the proliferation of these online venues is one of archival integrity. As more and more of Minnesota's public conversation goes digital, what steps should be taken to ensure that history will have access to it?

Problem not unique to the web
While the web poses distinct archival dilemmas, the issue of digital impermanence is not unique to the Internet alone. Those working in television and radio have long been aware of the fragile nature of the media they toil in, and recent technological updates have raised new difficulties for them, similar to those that face the Internet. It's worth examining these problems briefly for the sake of comparison.

In TV news, for instance, the switch to digital media has brought many short-term benefits, but it has also complicated archival preservation. While lowering the cost of production and increasing the ease of dissemination, digital video is highly transitory, and subject to disappearing without careful planning.  In contrast, motion picture film – the original medium used for location news gathering – was quite expensive, but it had a projected shelf life of well over a century.

More recently, magnetic tapes replaced film-based capture in most news departments, bringing an increase in ease, but a decrease in longevity. These tape formats changed rapidly, and some of the earliest recordings have already suffered from serious deterioration. This is likewise true of magnetic audio recordings. 

The digital video revolution of the 1990s sped up the proliferation of videotape formats, making retrieval ever more dependent upon highly specific equipment. Now, with the advent of tapeless digital recording, video material relies on continual hard-drive back-ups – and frequent software updates – in order to keep it accessible over time.  Digital audio recordings face similar issues.

No tangible artifact
TV and radio material has always held problems for archivists because of its fragile and highly technical nature. However, past preservation efforts were always able to rely on tangible artifacts. Not so today. As video and audio programs go entirely digital, these media are starting to parallel the Internet in that they are reaching a point where there is no underlying physical artifact to preserve.

For large institutions, the task of preserving substantial volumes of digital information is daunting, but not impossible. Minnesota Public Radio, for instance, is currently in the process of creating a digital archive of all of its magnetic tape recordings, ushering in a future of massive, ongoing data management. For individuals and small organizations that do not have the resources to invest in such long-term solutions, the digital age may portend an archival black hole.

For instance, 8mm home movies can sit in your uncle's attic and still be recovered in 80 years, but can the same be said of the 720p HD Quicktime files stored on your daughter's laptop?  Indeed, will her laptop even function in a decade? Posed this way, the preservation predicaments of the digital age quickly become apparent. 

Archiving the Internet
On the web front, the problems are related, but slightly different. As a society, we face an uncertain and changeable digital future – one in which some other delivery system will likely supplant the Internet as we now know it. At the very least, some other standard is bound to eclipse the current HTML website design language, potentially making older web material unreadable at some future point. Both of these scenarios pose real dilemmas for today's trove of original, web-only information.

Because of these problems, efforts are now underway to preserve web-based information for future reference. For example, the San Francisco-based Internet Archive has partnered with major institutions like the Smithsonian to help save the Internet's digital artifacts. The Internet Archive has been at work for several years now, "crawling" the web with software designed to take snapshots of public websites. The Archive then makes these snapshots available in an online portal called the "Wayback Machine." 

By sifting through the Wayback Machine's search engine, one can find remnants of dead sites, as well as early versions of current sites. Many of these sites are missing critical bits of information, however. For better preservation results, the Internet Archive suggests that website owners register their sites with them directly, in order to allow the Archive to compile site changes more frequently and comprehensively. 

Small institutions and individuals should be aware of these efforts, and should make sure to submit their sites for inclusion in this online preservation enterprise. However, a more traditional option is also available to those concerned with archival longevity.

A paper future?
In preservation, redundancy matters. While there has been a trend by museums to place digital copies of their collections online, these institutions are still retaining and preserving original, physical artifacts. This is particularly true of paper. After all, high-quality paper, properly preserved, is an incredibly stable medium. We need look no further than the Dead Sea scrolls or the Declaration of Independence for proof of this.

Even in the midst of the digital explosion, one should not doubt the central role of traditional archival institutions (and their hard-copy collections) in the formulation of the historical record. The printed news story is still the single most important record for writers and researchers looking to reassemble the bits of history's ragged narrative. The personal, written correspondence of soldiers, politicians and citizens also provides valuable context for historians seeking to understand the reasons and passions that drove historical events.

Today, blogs serve a similar function to the personal letters of years past. They chronicle individual responses to social events, and give us a more comprehensive picture of our era's psychology. Today's proliferation of online journalists and media producers also offers original perspectives not available elsewhere, and their materials hold unique historical value. This is why it is important for those working without large-scale institutional support to preserve their work in the most future-proof format possible. In short, that format is paper. 

Independent journalists and commentators: Make sure to commit your work to the printed page.  Online writers and bloggers: Print the contents of your sites comprehensively. Save a copy in your attic, send one to the copyright office, and most important, donate a set to your local or state historical society. History will be glad that you did.

Matt Ehling is a St. Paul-based television producer, documentary filmmaker and writer.

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Comments (2)

To consider the fact that'history' could be wiped out by a 'mouse' is awesome indeed.

But consider also the alternative...out of those piles of old newspapers could rise again, a gem in investment for collectors. Maybe even a new business venture; its base a store front of Used News Stores?

News scouts like book scouts will be scouring recyle bins and even gutters; drying off rain-stained papers as past history icons.Start dumpster diving, and you could even grab a little from your area stimulus package. You'd be starting a whole, new business concept.

Sad indeed is the loss of the newspaper. The newsboy on the corner died long ago. Paper routes are but a fast-fading memory among old codgers "remembering when" they had 150 customers in Richfield and "learned what money was all about."

The news stand as we once knew it...Shindlers on Hennepin or the outdoor news stand near the bridge, Perine's Books in Dinky Town; both carried world news papers. Gone and forgotten. Who even remembers the guy who sold a few papers on the corner of Nicollet and ninth and you bought one to read with a cup of java at Walgreen's before you headed for work?

Outdoor metal boxes killed the human face behind the seller some time ago. But now newsprint itself, that too shall pass into the great black hole that sucks the life out of the newspaper as viable history resource....destroyed by a 'mouse'. Yes sir, that's terrorism, but a finger away.

There needs to be a sequel to the Finnish masterpiece "Year of the Hare" - 1974 film which played lightly, cynically, with the same concept.

All those old newspapers ready to hit the dumpster? Save them. You may have a gold mine, too soon.

We may be in the "Blackberry" season but it could be a short season...what's going to be the next instant info-fruit coming down the highway?

How about info-chips implanted by subscription only. Journalism 101 would buy in immediately. But what about investigative news alternatives?

Maybe its time to dust off and gear up those old Hiedelberg presses again and tabloid the news on the corner..."Hey mister, you wanna read all (and I mean all) about it?..."

The mention of archive.org, an Internet repository, is understated. Each day, the Internet is archived, and access is as easy as Google. Pick a date, and retrieve the site of interest. Archive.org, is also mirrored by The Great Library of Alexandria, and today, all works uploaded to archive.org, are also deposited in The Great Library of Alexandria. It would seem obvious, that any professional journalist would want her/his works archived in such a prestigious repository as archive.org and The Great Library of Alexandria.