Once upon a time, maintaining archives meant storing important documents and relics in vaults. Medieval monks were carefully copying the Bible and other texts by hand hundreds of years after the Egyptians began curating the classical Library of Alexandria. But vaults have a tendency to be pillaged by conquering armies. Manuscripts are prone to damage or loss, and the Library of Alexandria was eventually destroyed by an angry mob. That’s the problem with physical archives: they’re vulnerable. Sadly, many priceless artifacts have been lost worldwide.
Today, we can store information more securely in a digital archive called the Wayback Machine.
What is it?
The Wayback Machine is an extensive collection of preserved Web pages, documents, photos, and more from 1996 to present day. The digital library will celebrate its 20th birthday in 2016, and has already accumulated almost 23 petabytes of data with help from organizations like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.
Anyone can browse the archive. Brush up with a quick search tutorial, jump right into an advanced search, or browse popular collections on the Machine’s homepage, from television archives to copies of “old time radio” recordings.
Why digital archives are important
Google VP Vint Cerf, considered by many to be a “father of the Internet”, has voiced concerns that failure to maintain archives could result in the 21st Century becoming a “Digital Dark Age.” Computers a century from now may not be backwards compatible with present-day programs and hardware, and might be unable to access information as it is currently stored.
With technology changing so rapidly – and ever more of our lives existing in the digital sphere – we run the risk of losing something important as aging hard drives break and current file formats become obsolete. Some fear that data might also be censored to serve government interests, and subsequently lost for good.
The Wayback Machine strives to preserve data, for several worthy reasons. Its “About” page cites intentions to protect public access to government information, cultural history, and the content behind dead links, as well as tracking the evolution of both modern language and the Web. Digital libraries will likely become as valuable as physical libraries for preserving glimpses of the past.
If, as George Santayana wrote, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” it’s a good thing we have The Wayback Machine.