Heritage Records and the Changing Filter through which we View our World

At both of the JISC-PoWR workshops delegates have been keen for the project team to spell out the reasons why institutions might want to preserve Web resources. These ‘drivers’ then give fuel to their case for the funds needed to archive the institutional Web site.

The idea of ‘heritage records’ is one that is often mentioned. Using Web sites as a ‘cultural snap shot’ has the potential to be a highly useful activity.

In his interesting and functional text Managing the Crowd: Rethinking Records Management for the Web 2.0 World Steve Bailey puts forward the point that deciding what will be important in the future is a tricky business. As he explains in the section on appraisal, retention and destruction: “The passage of time inevitably changes the filter through which we view our world and assess its priorities.”

Steve gives the example of the current plethora of Web sites that offer what we might call ‘quack’ remedies for medical problems. These sites may not seem to be of great interest right now but they may be invaluable to future historians who wish to demonstrate the distrust of the medical profession exhibited in 21st century western culture.

James Curral in his recent plenary talk at the recent Institutional Web Management Workshop used the example of blog posts made by soldiers out in Iraq and Afghanistan to demonstrate the irony of modern technology; these highly informative records could easily be lost while the diaries of World War II soldiers remain accessible.

Preservation mistakes have been made aplenty in the past. The destruction of much of the BBC’s flagship programmes in the 1970s has been well documented and in 2001 the BBC launched a a treasure hunt campaign to locate recordings of pre-1980 television or radio programmes. Ironically the Web site is no longer being updated, though it is still hosted on the BBc server.

So who can know what the future will bring? Which Web resources will we wish we had kept? Which student blog writer will go on to be a future prime minister or an infamous criminal? What bit of the terrabytes is the most important?

As Steve Bailey points out there is no crystal ball. It has always has been, and always will be, very difficult to predict what resources may prove to be valuable to future generations.

Although this offers little recompense for those making these choices, it does at least argue the case that we do need to preserve and we need to do so soon.

2 thoughts on “Heritage Records and the Changing Filter through which we View our World

  1. Richard M. Davis

    Hi Marieke.

    We’ve all found that the tussle between conceptions of web resources as either “publication” or “records” can be quite vexing. On the Web so many things can fall between stools, and trying to treat everything as one or the other can feel like forcing square pegs into round holes, cracking nuts with hammers, [your favourite cliché of futile incongruence here!].

    One attractive idea that we’re considering here is to make more explicit a third class of object, namely “artefact”. Mightn’t a web object, or group of objects, be selected for preservation as an “artefact”, purely on the grounds of being of demonstrable interest or use – without having to tick all the boxes associated with a “record” or a “publication”?

    In the real world, preservation activities are divided between the triple pillars of Archives, Libraries and Museums, dealing respectively with records, publications and artefacts. If we can choose to keep a Chinese bell or Roman statue just because it is interesting, shouldn’t interesting web resources have the same rights?

    (I was going to write a post about this, but this is quicker! 🙂

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