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Who's archiving IT's history?

The mishandling of Babbage's baggage

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Column The relaunch of the IT History Society (formerly the Charles Babbage Foundation) exposes a problem which the Web has brought to journalism and historians - stuff is not being preserved. There are people, however, who are trying to build proper records of the past.

The question is whether this works. The IT History Society is trying to create a history of European computing:

Software for Europe is a historical project with strong interdisciplinary connections. Its members are informed variously by the disciplinary perspectives of cultural history, business history, economic history, history of science and technology, science and technology studies, and technology policy; it is our intention that the project’s work will be recognised in all these fields. Much of the work will proceed from analysis of written sources, published and archival, and to some extent on the examination of software itself.

Well, they're in for a tough job. One of my jobs recently has been to look back into IT history and apply some 20-20 hindsight to events five years ago and ten years ago.

How hard can that be? I go into the office; I open the vault with back numbers of IT Week. I find the one with the same date as my next publication deadline, and I flip through the pages till I find something interesting and topical. And I write my column. Bingo.

Last week, I couldn't get into the office, so I went for my backup. Way back up: the WayBackMachine which is attempting to build up an archive of the web.

I won't hear a word against the WayBackMachine. But I will in honesty have to say a few words against it: it's got holes.

What it's good at is holding copies of "That day's edition" just the way a newspaper archive does. I can, for example, go back to NewsWireless by opening up this link; and there, I can find everything that was published on December 6th 2002 - five years ago! - more or less. I can even see that the layout was different, if I look at the story of how NewsWireless installed a rogue wireless access point in the Grand Hotel Palazzo Della Fonte in Fiuggi, in the hills above Rome. And it shows that in those early days, NewsWireless was called "Guy Kewney's Mobile Campaign" - a name we chose in spite of the good advice of more sensible friends...

Now, have a look at the same story, as it appears on NewsWireless today. The words are there, but it looks nothing like it used to look.

Unusually, NewsWireless does give you the same page you would have seen five years ago. When you're reading the Fiuggi story, the page shows you contemporary news: for example the utterly mad, definitely disgusting "phones to salivate over" http://www.newswireless.net/index.cfm/article/1226 which appeared that week. It's the week's edition, in content at least.

Most websites don't do this.

You can, sometimes, track back a particular five-year-old story (though sadly you'll often find it's been deleted), but if you go to the original site you're likely to find that the page you see is surrounded by modern stories. It's not a five-year-old edition. Take, for example Gordon Laing's Christmas 2002 article on five megapixel super-cameras (I know, I know) and you'll find exactly no stories at all relating to Christmas 2002. They were published, yes, but they aren't archived together anywhere - except the WayBackMachine.

And sadly, the WayBackMachine has a limitation; it has a lot of historical "editions" of websites, but there are a lot more it doesn't have.

Also, it's vulnerable to electronic interference. Censorshipware, according to Seth Finkelstein, sees the archive as a single site. If just one page appears to contain an image showing more skin than a maiden aunt in Boise, Idaho, might consider proper, then the entire archive is liable to be blacked by a lot of ISPs who take their cue from that net nanny.

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