After We Die

One of the key features of humanities in the age of print was preservation of both creative works and scholarship about them by royal and university libraries and later by national libraries. The point is of course that we will all be swept away by death and only the greatest repositories maintained by the sole durable institution we know, government, can be relied on to preserve whatever scholarly progress we achieve.

In the age of digital humanities this all becomes more complicated, because the key productions are often owned by universities or commercial organizations. Who is acting to preserve those databases, or even the small local data collections in which so much scholarship is presented? It's not looking good.

Because I am a New Zealand citizen, some years ago I asked the National Library of New Zealand to preserve my scholarly website, Piggin.Net, and I have just been to see what they did about it. The web archiving unit crawled the website every 12 months until May 2015, and then seems to have stopped. I have made many changes to the site since then and this it not reassuring. Will they resume crawling?

At the same time I asked the British Library to preserve another website in which I publish English family and local history, Piggin.Org. Alarmingly, the BL crawls ceased in 2013, although I go into that site from time to time to update information, correct links and fix spellings.

[Update: the BL unit, the UK Web Archive, has promptly replied on Twitter: "We have continued archiving sites after 2013 but they are not currently visible on the website. We are working to rectify this."]

It occurred to me that the country where I pay taxes, Germany, ought to be providing this service too. There is a web archiving unit at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, but its performance is a disgrace for a great nation. One would assume that a Made in Germany site which does not use the top-level domain DE would need to be added to the DNB archive by hand. However if you read the basic facts page, you discover that (a) it is impossible at the present time to nominate a page for spidering, and (b) a saved page would in any case only be visible in the reading room. This absurdity is (c) justified as a legal matter. But if one wished as copyright owner to opt in and offer the DNB the express consent to put the web-archive copy online, one couldn't. See (a). A catch 22.

To add insult to injury, the link to the web archive collection, such as it is, is dead.

Some of my articles are preserved at Academia.edu and at ResearchGate.Net, but the preservation of my website in its final state after I die is only being assured by one organization, Archive.Org of the United States, with its Wayback Machine. Archive.Org operates on an opt-out basis, meaning it saves everything (including from Germany) unless you expressly ask them not to.

I am very pleased with their work, particularly the fact that they harvest my version changes every few months. (In fact I sometimes go to them to recover versions I have myself lost.) But it is alarming to know that in 2016, archival preservation of the internet is still being left to a single San Francisco foundation funded by donations. They have just announced that they will create an extraterritorial backup copy of their collections in Canada. They are asking for donations. I think it's a very worthy cause.

But I still regard it as uncertain that any university or foundation or publishing company can survive for the next 500 years. This work ought to be funded by our governments,of which most will, in the nature of things, survive the course.

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