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Web Archiving Continues a Tradition of Preservation


Ships that visited the ancient seaport of Alexandria, Egypt, are said to have been met not only by the dock workers and longshoremen who would unload their cargoes, but also by archivists. These archivists were empowered to confiscate, forcibly if need be, any books – or scrolls, in the early days – that may have been on board. Before the ships left port, the books or scrolls were quickly and dutifully copied by hand. The copy was given to the owner, while the original was retained by the archivists, who deposited them in the famed Library of Alexandria, one of the eight wonders of the ancient world.

Alexandria_Library-312274-editedAccording to tradition, the Library of Alexandria was the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world. Unfortunately, it was destroyed – by accident or deliberately, depending upon which ancient source one chooses to believe – and an incalculable amount of information was lost to mankind forever.

Today, of course, we probably could fit the entire contents of the Library of Alexandria on a thumb drive and we could protect that archive’s information with a perfect, error-free copy – no handwritten transcription required – in a matter of moments. But today’s electronic archivists still have their own problems to deal with, and web archiving specialists have an even more particular set of challenges to meet.

In the early days of the web, from about 1992 through 1995, many archivists, librarians and historians were quick to realize that they were witnessing the emergence of a critical new information medium. Like all the forms of information storage before it, it demanded archival procedures to ensure that any irreplaceable information that found its home there would not suffer the same fate as the Library of Alexandria. The early efforts to preserve the web and its contents seem quaint and antiquated today, just 20 years later. They included initiatives to print (and sometimes bind) paper hard copies of every single website, which is an absurd idea in 2015 but seemed feasible on the relatively small World Wide Web that existed around 1994. Later, as the web’s growth began to take off, archiving web sites to electronic file formats such as PDF gained some traction.

Eventually, however, the nonprofit Internet Archive realized what is now an article of faith among web archivists: a website is more than its raw content. Its layout, format and design are part of its essence, and thus the only way to properly archive a website is to do so within its own native medium. In 1996, The Wayback Machine was born, and with it, modern web archiving.

Those of us who work in the web archiving division at Reed Tech℠ are cognizant of the fact that we are not merely providing an important service to our clients. We are, like many of our customers, heirs to a preservationist tradition that dates back thousands of years. If your responsibilities include the preservation of an institution’s digital content, website or any other online resource that calls for historical preservation, we hope we can help you identify a web archiving solution that works for you.

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