Page last updated at 10:33 GMT, Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Is the future in bits?

Ronnie Hazlehurst obituary, BBC
Some paper copies of Ronnie Hazlehurst's obituary retain the error

By Murray Dick
BBC News

Composer Ronnie Hazlehurst is fondly remembered mainly for his work on classic TV theme tunes for shows such as Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine.

But his passing and the obituaries that followed may also be significant for another reason - for the light they shed on the way archives are changing and how information will be made available for future historians.

In October 2007, several obituaries for Mr Hazlehurst wrongly claimed he had written the SClub7 song "Reach (for the Stars)".

The source of the error was an anonymous (and now corrected) entry on Wikipedia. BBC News, The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times, amongst others, were caught out by the unsophisticated hoax.

For those with time to look, the physical archives of the printed papers reveal who fell for the fake fact.

By contrast, none of the online obituaries contain the errant reference and none mention any correction - apart from that of the Guardian which has both.

Paper plain

For many it is an example of what changes when bits and history mix to make something more malleable than when it was about letters, books, diaries and memos.

"There is an added level of complexity in dealing with digital as opposed to analogue assets," said Frances Boyle, executive director of the Digital Preservation Coalition which works to secure the UK's bits and bytes.

The big contrast, said Ms Boyle, was the obvious difference in the "containers" of the information.

"If the paper, parchment, book is preserved then the information will also be secured and remain accessible," she said. "This is not the case in the digital landscape."

Instead, with bits, other factors such as media fragility and failure, technological obsolescence, scale of material and costs all have to be taken in to account.

National Archive, Getty
Paper records have a permanence that digital records can lack

Dr Tim Lovering, a research fellow in the history department at the University of the West of England, said the move from analogue to digital was a "pressing" problem for archivists.

"Historically, archives have been defined by holding unique materials (as opposed to publications), and the fundamental quality of those materials is that they are in their completed form," he said.

With a book, memo or diary the completed form is easy to recognise and store.

"However," he added, "there is a real question about whether you can 'archive' an evolving system like a website," he said. "A news website, for example, can archive individual stories, but the basic inability to capture the whole creates an expectation of impermanence."

For newspapers moving to more digital forms has led to a change in what people get when they look back - especially if they look on the wider web rather than on the newspapers sites themselves.

A search for the Hazlehurst obituaries will not find cached versions on Google or Yahoo. A search in the Internet Archive or in its UK equivalent, webarchive.org.uk, also reveals no archived copies. As far as much of the net is concerned the gaffe never happened.


It's about working out what you can get rid of as much as what you can keep

Jessie Owen, National Archive

The problem emerges because of the way that the websites of newspapers control who can index and archive what they publish online. Many use a file known as "robots.txt" to restrict the web spiders used by search engines that scour the internet for new content.

The lack of archives is partly being filled in the UK by the British Library and the UK Web Archiving Consortium which have started to selectively archive content from UK websites and make information available at webarchive.org.uk.

But at present this content is a fraction of what has been published online - and no UK-based commercial online newspapers are currently being archived.

"Consumers are used to online business models whereby content is free at the point of access," said a spokesman for the Association of Online Publishers explaining why papers use restrictions. "However, what is free today may not necessarily be free tomorrow - and publishers' archives are potentially a good source of revenue going forward."

Added the spokesman: "Limiting, in certain circumstances, when search engines are able to cache content can help prevent: the issue of contempt of court; the repetition of potentially libellous comments; and the infringement of intellectual property rights."

In and out

The online research community is already being disadvantaged by these holes in history, said David Stuart, a research fellow in Web 2.0 Technologies at the University of Wolverhampton.

"The lack of an exhaustive archive of the UK web space not only risks the loss of information on web pages that are changed or taken down," he said. "It also undermines the value of pages that link to them; the value of the web comes as much from the hyperlinks between pages as the contents of the web pages.

Man using digital camera, BBC
Contemporary formats may be hard to recover in the future

"This is especially true in the blogosphere, where so much of the content created by the public is built upon the foundations of traditional news stories," he added.

For others though these changes are indicative of the bigger issues archivists are facing.

"Looking after digital information is more difficult," said Jessie Owen, digital continuity project manager at the National Archive. "It's more vulnerable and more complex."

"Put a piece of paper in a drawer and you'll be able to read it in 20 years," she said. "If you put a floppy disk or CD in a drawer you probably will not be able to read it."

For Ms Owen the key is preparation - perhaps as the documents, files and records are being laid down.

"The first thing you need to do is decide what value that information has," she said. "One challenge is the sheer volume of material. You could keep everything but its probably best not to because it makes it difficult to manage."

"Good information management is key to understanding what information you need, how you want to save it for the future," she said.

"It's about working out what you can get rid of as much as what you can keep," she said.

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