I can clearly recall one particular afternoon from my childhood when I went over to a friend’s house to play. I walked in the back door, as I ordinarily would, and encountered his mother standing at the kitchen table with the day’s newspaper, and beside it, a scrapbook. When I asked what she was doing, she said, “Today is an important one in history, the Berlin wall has come down.” She folded the front page of the New York Times in half, and delicately placed it between the scrapbook’s pages. I shrugged and ran into the next room with larger things (like Transformers) on my mind, but that small gesture has always stuck in my head.
The act of archiving is certainly not a rarity, but the motivation behind it is something profound. People save things for many different reasons, only some of which may be personal bookkeeping — perhaps as a way to capture an event for themselves, bottling that moment in time to create context and perspective for their own lives and the ways in which they perceived the world.
I got to thinking about all this a little while ago, specifically in the context of what I (and most of you, I presume) do on a daily basis: create websites. Looking back on even the brief history the web has had; how much of it have we actually accounted for? Not just content-wise, but visually as well. We are good at saving where things are located (the URL), and pretty good at saving what was said (the content), but very poor at saving what things look like (the design). Things become even more bleak when we consider saving what things look like over time, or at a specific time.
Cause for Alarm?
At SXSW this year I saw a great panel headed up by the NYPL’s Carrie Bickner called Preserving our Digital Legacy and the Individual Collector; a continuation of her panel last year, Digital Preservation and Blogs (podcast). The panelists discussed in detail what goes into the process of discovering, documenting, and preserving collections for libraries, but also the extreme troubles of digital preservation. Dealing with physical and digital archival methods, and format restrictions: will technology 30 years from now be able to even parse what we are creating today? Carrie’s and her fellow speakers’ words really struck a chord with me; so much of what we’ve already done in our industry has slipped away. Entire websites, companies, thoughts, and ideas have all fallen into the void, and will potentially never be seen again.
It’s simple when we think of clearly important events like wars ending, celebrity suicides, and space travel: these events have stacks of associated information and visuals saved throughout the world. But what of the more mundane, or of things important to a select few? Many of the world’s greatest authors and artists only became recognized as so after they had died. Afterwards, their work, and, sometimes more importantly, their private effects like letters and diaries, become monumentally important devices for understanding both the individual and the world through their eyes. So too, much of the work we’ve done has left the web forever, residing only in our hard drives, and dusty stacks of ZIP disks.
Of course, there are projects out there like the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine, which is wonky even on its best days, often searching for images and files from previous designs long since deleted from servers. The same goes for Ma.gnolia’s feature to “View Saved Copy”, which saves a version of a page you bookmark that references CSS and images from your server. If you change your document structure or markup, remove those images or CSS, or otherwise… ya know… redesign, that cached version of your site will likely break. Others might take matters into their own hands, like Mr. Inman, who programmed an AppleScript to automatically upload a screenshot of his site to Flickr everyday.
All of these are great ideas, but far from perfect, especially when it comes down to sustainability and public consumption. It’s terribly frustrating to bookmark a beautifully designed website, only to go back later to a different design, and the realization that I never took the time to take a screenshot. Social sites like del.icio.us and Newsvine have flourished based on their strong community built around sharing information and interests. We’ve figured out how to share stories and locations, the text of the web, but what about the rest?
Quite the Quandary
Calling this a gargantuan effort is probably a severe understatement. Problems like storage, browsers, platforms, and color profiles would surely pepper the discussion, and those are just for the hurdles involved in taking a static visual of a website. Would the leap to preservation of code or a living, semi-functioning website be far behind?
I most certainly don’t have any answers to this, but it’s been troubling me for some time. Even discussing the problems will get us closer to thinking about what to do next. Maybe some people don’t care, or imagine the web to be a more fluid medium where content is the most important thing happening. Well, I care about design over time, both from historical and sociological standpoints. We can look back at books that are hundreds of years old and still read them and feel what they were like, but the web is already slipping away from us. I want to know what a site used to look like 10 years ago, and I want to be able to do the same in another 10 years from now. Preserve our digital legacy!