Are We Losing Our History in the Digital Age?

Time for a scare-report! British Library warns of 'black hole' in history if websites and digital files are not preserved: "Historians face a ‘black hole’ of lost information if we do not preserve websites and other digital records, the head of the British Library warned today. Chief executive Lynne Brindley said our cultural heritage is at risk as the internet evolves and technologies become obsolete."

Well, maybe. The article underestimates the efforts already underway to preserve at least some digital records. There is the Internet Archive (Wikipedia article) which maintains a huge cache of expired webpages. (The Wayback Machine is invaluable for recovering information when you hit an expired link.)

And of course there is the magnificent Washington State Digital Archives, my employer. We preserve the websites of former Washington governors Mike Lowery and Gary Locke among others.

The other problem with the "black hole" argument is that it compares the spotty preservation of digital records to an imaginary paper past where every record was lovingly archived and preserved in climate controlled isolation. But every historian learns soon enough that huge chunks of our historical record are missing. Twain's articles in the Territorial Enterprise are gone, burned up with the rest of the archives in an 1875 fire. A 1973 fire in Saint Louis destroyed 16-18 million military personnel files dating back to 1912. The Library at Alexandria was burned.

And yet we have histories of all these times and people. I would dearly love to be able to read all of Twain's articles as a fledgling journalist--but the handful that survive, Twain's own accounts of his Nevada years, and other primary sources from the period give us a pretty clear idea of what was happening in the to Virginia City and to Twain in those years. Future historians will find records enough for writing their histories of the early 2000s.

[Burning paper image from Flickr user The Shifted Librarian and used via a Creative Commons license. I added the wise-ass text using Picasa 3. This story is also being discussed over at Metafilter.]