By Ian Milligan
(previously posted in two parts on ianmilligan.ca)
Yahoo! succeeded in destroying the most amount of history in the shortest amount of time, certainly on purpose, in known memory. Millions of files, user accounts, all gone.
– Archive.Org (click through for the GeoCities archive)
As if it was a bad April Fools joke, April 1st 2013 saw the end of Yahoo! Messages. It was a pretty sudden end to a long-running, fifteen-year-old site and collection of threads and discussions. Notice arrived a month earlier, on March 1st, when they announced that the website would shut down in a month. The reason: “to help focus our efforts on core Yahoo! product experiences.”
Fifteen years of history, destroyed. Fifteen years of largely non-commercialized voices of everyday people, discussing issues as varied as business, the Internet, government, hobbies, science, education, and so forth.
Again: the possible loss of fifteen years of history. Primary sources. Deleted. Why? Storage costs are falling. Digital preservation is a recognized field. Just removed from the web, without consideration for the future legacy of products, of our conversations, of our archives.
Well, it was saved. Archive Team, as they have many times before, stepped up to the plate and helped to preserve Yahoo! Messages. It was a tough-fought battle: Yahoo! limited the rate by which things could be downloaded, there was little time. Thanks to virtual machines, hundreds of people loaned bandwidth and time to the project, saving this piece of history. Thanks, also, to the engaged board editor over at the History of Science and Technology, who helped post a call for action when it looked like Yahoo! messages wasn’t going to be preserved.
Wake up, historians.
This stuff matters. If we want to be the profession that leads the way in understanding and interpreting the past, we should be part of this conversation, or at the very least learn and see how we can help out. I should note here, quickly, that I know there are historians who care. I follow them on Twitter and they’re awesome. But they’re a small minority of the profession, and that needs to change. This doesn’t just affect digital historians, it affects historians. Our very profession.
We care about the destruction of sources, at least when they’re paper. When priceless documents seemed to have been burned in Timbuktu, historians were outraged. When Library and Archives Canada limits access, or gets rid of an old labour history website, we’re outraged. Cuts to library cuts in Canada, generally, worry us publicly.
I hope you get the point: historians care about this stuff, as we rightfully should. But when Yahoo! Messages shut down, barely a peep.
Let’s think of the digital issues that have the potential to reshape everything we do. Here are some chapters of this sad history, preserved and aggregated thanks to Archives Team and the Internet Archive.
- Geocities was shuttered in 2009 by Yahoo! One of the most popular websites in Internet history, and still relatively popular at the time of its closure. This was millions and millions of user pages, non-commercial content, the voices of everyday people, shut down with again fairly little notice. As Archive.Org put it above, this was the destruction of “the most amount of history in the shortest amount of time, certainly on purpose, in known memory.” This isn’t hyperbole. Thanks Yahoo!
- I’ve written elsewhere about how hard USENET is to access for historians today, as Google Groups access has been considerably depreciated.
- Yahoo! videos was taken down.
- Local webhosts, such as FortuneCity.
- Blogging platforms like Posterous, currently in the process of being saved. You can help too.
- etc. etc. etc.
So when Google made a ‘funny April fools joke’ about YouTube shutting down, I wasn’t too amused.
What can we do?
First of all, we can start making sure that we demand that data be kept. This can be incorporated into our daily lives, as university researchers (who if full-time, share in co-governance of pretty considerable and influential institutions), employees of corporations, users of websites, and so forth. Demand that data is kept. Question when deletions happen. Keep this on the radar. Use our clout as historians (and here I’m looking at those who are higher up in the food chain) to look at Yahoo, Google, and others, and say “no!” And if we, as a profession, don’t feel we have the ability to make informed judgments on this, maybe we should be recasting our pedagogies.
We can start trying to educate ourselves about digital preservation, learn about these endeavours. A good place to start is the Library of Congress’ digital preservation blog, although there are others. I’d tell you to follow them on Google Reader, but that’s dying (see what’s going on here?!).
We can donate to the Internet Archive.
We can donate bandwidth to the Archive Team Warrior.
We’re historians, and we should care about this. Let’s do something, as small as it can be, in our own lives.
Oh, but we can all do something. That means you. (yeah, you)
It makes me realize how much history has probably been written because somebody didn’t throw something out. Jonathan Vance, a historian at Western University, said as much at a keynote I attended last month – that his greatest fear was garbage day. The war records lost when somebody passes away and a son or daughter doesn’t know what they are. All those diskettes and hard drives that might just get tossed because “who cares about that old data.” These are the invaluable building blocks of a future social historian.
So I now lay down a challenge to anybody who cares about history: we all need to think like historians, every minute of the day.
This is the message I tell my students. Although few will go onto academic work, they will still be historians, no matter where they end up: in the private sector, or primary/secondary education, or the government, etc. That beyond the usual things that we ascribe to undergraduate- or -lay-trained historians (great reading/writing skills, an ability to evaluate competing narratives, evaluate sources, cut through the bullshit, etc.), that there was a responsibility – a responsibility to always think like a historian.
What if a historian had been on the senior staff at Yahoo!? What if a historian had been part of Google when they planned on deleting Google Video? (And by this I don’t mean somebody who might happen to have a History BA, picked up along the way – but somebody who thinks like a historian)
That we all should:
- Question the destruction of sources: raise a flag when somebody suggests shredding some documents, or throwing them out en masse;
- Think ahead to the future, especially when thinking of the digital: keep those old disks, keep those hard drives, keep backing up and making available to future generations (and to themselves, should they want to look back on their own past down the line);
- Keep it Open; I was so happy to see several of my students slapping CreativeCommons licenses on their work, and moving out of the realm of Facebook and into websites. Facebook might not be preserved, but their WordPress site certainly will – as will the data;
- If they see something important, keep it or at least be mindful of its potential. I made a joke about how it might not even be legal. Obviously, I don’t want my students breaking the law. How much of our history, especially around the contentious grey areas of our past, is possible because somehow something became available. Whether its advocating for declassification of materials, or in some cases, maybe even saving something for the distant future…. I dunno.
You don’t need a PhD to be a historian, let alone a BA. It’s a frame of mind, and one part of that ought to be preserving sources.
Ian Milligan is an assistant professor of Canadian and digital history at the University of Waterloo.
Very interesting. Ever since I was a history student back during the dawn of the World Wide Web, I have wondered what would happen when archives were destroyed. My two cents: I think the only way to preserve is to transfer it to paper. We cannot expect the electrical system, computers and all the hardware to exist forever. Paper has a pretty good life expectancy.
Thanks Suzanne – I think you’ve encapsulated a common fear! If we have trouble reading WordPerfect files from ten or fifteen years ago right now, what will it be like in 50 years?
The big issue with paper, though, is space. These digital archives are so, so big – I can’t imagine how many archive boxes something like Geocities or Yahoo! Messages would represent.
I’ve tackled some of the scale, comparing the Internet Archive to the Library of Congress, in an older (more technical) blog post at http://ianmilligan.ca/2012/12/12/warc-files-a-challenge-for-historians-and-finding-needles-in-haystacks/.
This is a wonderful call to arms for those who care about history. I often think about how many great works in history came so close to destruction – like Beowolf – and how many others have been permanently lost, like the vast majority of the works of Classical Greece and Rome.
But the correct way to sublimate my anger over these events is to consider how I can behave today to avoid such things happening again. Your advice is practical and well-considered. Thanks!
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