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Will Born-Digital Alternative Histories Disappear Forever?

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born-digital-965956-editedWhen future historians look back to find out about “everyday people” in our era, what will they find? On one hand, ordinary life is documented much more thoroughly than at any previous time in history. Social media and other web-based formats have enabled and encouraged us to share the mundane, the profound and everything in between. Even often-mocked social media photos of people’s lunches, for example, could one day provide a historian with a data point about diet and lifestyle in the early 21st century. On the other hand, it’s impossible to say how much of that material will survive for more than a few years after its creation. Without permanent archiving, much of it will eventually be lost.

The same fate can befall the social and cultural history of an entire community when websites for independent newspapers, neighborhood forums and similar resources go dark. When the Boston Phoenix, a newspaper that covered aspects of Boston society and culture that were sometimes overlooked by the city’s better-known newspapers, ceased operation in 2013, the born-digital content it had been producing for almost a decade was placed in jeopardy.

Losing that content would mean losing part of the community’s history, a loss that could never be replaced, the paper’s final editor in chief, Carly Carioli, told the Columbia Journalism Review.

“There’s this fiction that because everything is online now, that it’s going to be online forever and that it leads to a democratization of history,” Carioli told the magazine. “But in practice, so much of the Web is even more ephemeral than legacy media, because the only places that can really afford to digitize and maintain their archives are big legacy media companies. In 20 years, we may look back and only be able to find those primary media sources. Alt-weeklies, as they disappear, are disappearing from the Web as well.”

Web archiving services can provide a safety net for these cumulative diaries of the lives of communities. Today’s best web archiving technologies are based upon open standards that are designed to withstand the test of time and remain accessible to audiences for decades to come.

If you or your organization is responsible for the records and archives of daily life and culture in your community or neighborhood, and you are grappling with digital preservation challenges, Reed Tech℠ may be able to help. There’s no reason your history needs to disappear. Give us a call today.



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