Don’t Web Managers Care About Preservation?

In response to a post on ULCC’s DA Blog Chris Rushbridge, director of the DCC (and contributor to the Digital Curation Blog) commented:

The enthusiastic way in which web-site owners “re-brand” or “re-launch” their web-sites suggests that they are not particularly interested, long-term, in the details of the experience; continuous improvement means continuous discarding. One hopes that they are more interested in the information content, in some more abstract sense. Maybe we could measure this by tracking older pages across re-launches?

Perhaps a measure of commitment to the “look and feel” might be the lifetime since last reorganised?

Is this right? Don’t Web site owners care about preservation, preferring instead to continually add new features to their services?

I have to say that I disagree. Rather than continual changes to Web sites due to the Web site owners’ enthusiasms, I would argue that such changes usually occur in response to user needs and expectations, the growing importance of Web services (which mean that institutions have greater expectations of the services which will be provided) and an increasing understanding of the limitations of approaches taken to Web site development in the past.

One example of this has been the obligation (for legal and moral reasons) to enhance the accessibility of Web resources. Initially HTML authoring tools and Content Management Systems (CMSs) provided little support to enhance accessibility – indeed many CMSs generated low quality HTML which could not be processed by assistive technologies. But as the technologies improved there was a moral obligation to redevelop Web sites to enhance their accessibility. And with the DDA/SENDA legislation requiring organisations to take ‘reasonable measures’ to ensure that users with disabilities were not discriminated against, there was also a legal requirement to make use of technologies which could enhance the accessibility of the Web resources.

We are now seeking similar tensions arising from the popularity of Web 2.0 services. And although it might appear appealing to try to resist the call to engage with such technologies the reality seems to be that if institutions fail to deploy more engaging, usable and useful services the users will fail to use the services and go elsewhere. We need to remember that, for example, a AJAX interface isn’t just a new technology which Web developers wish to deploy because it’s new, but, if used correctly, a way of deploying services which are easier-to-use and more accessible.

So rather than Chris’s suggestion that doing nothing should be an indicator of a commitment to preservation, I would argue that there is a need for continual development to our Web services (and I suspect that the JISC Innovation Group would agree with me on the need for continued innovation). But this innovation needs to be addressed with an awareness of the need to address preservation concerns.

The challenges of Web site preservation in a Web 2.0 environment will be addressed at the second JISC PoWR workshop. These issues will also be addressed in a number of forthcoming posts on this blog.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Web Managers Care About Preservation?

  1. Kevin Ashley

    Brian, my reading of what Chris said is somewhat different to yours. I certainly don’t read anything that’s anti-innovation. Rather, I see a distinction being made between preserving an experience and preserving the information which the experience makes available. Both are valid preservation approaches and both achieve different ends.

    We’re all generally happy to use sites that undergo radical changes as long as we can still do what we used to do without having to relearn too much. We’re not so happy when reorganisations mean that our old bookmarks stop working, and we have to hunt for the content we want all over again. And we’re even less happy when a reorganisation means that the information we want has simply disappeared from the site entirely.

    Most of the time, preserving information content is sufficient, yet most current web preservation techniques tend to do better at preserving the appearance of a site (and hence the experience of using it). So there’s a gap, it seems, between what we want the technology to do for us, and what it actually does.

  2. Richard M. Davis

    Your point is a good one, Brian, that website managers are driven less by caprice and love of the latest bells and whistles, than by a need to keep up with emerging trends and expectations, the evolving regulatory climate, and of course internal organisational pressures. It’s a wonder some things stay the same as long as they do!

    As Kevin says, many DP/WP initiatives, particularly those we’ve been involved with, have an archival angle, addressing the issue of authentically preserving digital records and information considered “essential” – significant, even. The happy medium of preserving both information and appearance, reliably and easily, still seems some way off: Adrian Brown describes some approaches in his book, but they seem very complex and resource-intensive.

    I’m increasingly of the view that the idea of continuity, as described by TNA’s project for government, is an apt and valuable frame for all the key areas we’ve discussed in PoWR so far, including domain and URI persistence, design and accessibility, preservation and archiving. No doubt records management too! 🙂

  3. Chris Rusbridge

    Perhaps the “age since re-launch” point was a bit flippant, but I was serious about attempting to track the “older” (or perhaps more information-containing leaf pages in the tree) across re-launches. And Kevin is right, this grump came about partly because a number of organisations which are supposed to have a commitment to long-term access to information managed to destroy access through re-launches. Richard, I do like continuity, and also long-term accessibility (gets both angles!) rather than preservation…

    Persistent URIs are not about technical solutions, they are about commitment. We must make sure we never break URIs!

    (Having said all that, I need to explore more about in which circumstances, and for which kind of pages, breaking URIs is “OK”. At least partly because our hosting environment in Edinburgh is going to change some time, and we will not be able to do everything the same way. Oh hec!)

  4. Brian Kelly

    Hi Chris
    Thanks for the response.
    As well as the need for organisations to have policies and procedures to ensure they can preserve their own resources (whether this is the rich content or the experience) there’s also a need for similar policies and procedures which can help ensure that users can continue to access resources they may find useful.
    But as you touch on in your final paragraph, even when organisations know that this is important, it may not be easy to do.
    This is an area which we’ll address more on the blog and in the handbook to be produced by the JISC PoWR project.

Comments are closed.