The following text is copyright 1998 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

The Internet and the CITGO sign

By Scott Bradner

On October 14th the Wall Street Journal reported that the Internet, or at least a "chunk" (using their word) of it, was given to the Library of Congress. An archive of half a million web pages, taking up about 2 terabytes, was donated to the library by Alexa Internet, a Seattle-based web crawler company. It is a snapshot of the world wide web taken early in 1997. The data is housed in a computer rack-like structure with four bright red computer monitors one on top of another. The monitors display random pages from the archive every few seconds.

Why would the library want such a toy? I mean other than because it is fun to watch?

One of the tasks that libraries undertake is that of archiving the times in which they live. For example, they archive newspapers and sometimes tapes of TV and radio programs. This is so that future scholars can get a better idea of the context in which events happen. For a historian it can be very helpful to know what was being talked about in the popular press during the time just before a major event, such as the start of a war, and what was being talked about after the event.

This type of archiving was easy when all the news was in print, microfilms of old newspapers were all that was needed. Things got more complex with the advent of film, radio and then TV. It would be hard to write a good history of the Vietnam war without having access to archival copies of the evening news broadcasts.

Archiving the current world is now even harder. More and more of what affects our lives is now coming over the net: in newsgroups, in email messages to mailing lists and in web pages. Huge numbers of people have had access to the Starr report via the web. Some of them might have even read it rather than just skim it looking for the naughty bits. While the Starr report itself was also published on paper the backup material was not. The only way that this material existed for most of the world was as bits on the net.

I will say that archiving digital information can sometimes be difficult to justify. It can be quite hard to see that useful information for analyzing current society could come from some Internet mailing lists. For example, a discussion about the evils of spam (The email kind, not the canned meat product kind.), approaching a kind of perpetual motion, has taken over the com-priv mailing list.

Then again, in Boston a few years ago it was decided, for the sake of preserving '50s culture, that it was vital to preserve the big neon CITGO sign towering over Kenmore Square.

So although culture is definitely in the eye of the beholder, the ephemeral web will have to be part of the archive if the future is to know what affects our thinking today.

disclaimer: Compared to Harvard, much of the world has proven to be ephemeral, but the above are my ephemeral observations.