Preserving Digital History: What We Can Do Today to Help Tomorrow’s Historians


In this chapter you will learn about:

  • The perils of maintaining historical materials in digital formats
  • What you can do right now to prevent the loss of your digital work
  • Sound methods for constructing your website that will give it the best possible chance to survive inevitable technical changes over time
  • What computer scientists, digital librarians, and archivists are doing to help preserve websites and other digital artifacts in the long run

t the end of 2002, My History Is America’s History, an ambitious website aimed at promoting personal history among a popular audience and storing these narratives for others to read and reflect upon online, disappeared from the web with little fanfare. In the place of its hundreds of contributed stories, an essay contest on “The Idea of America,” an interview with David McCullough about “the importance of history,” and a guide to “saving your family’s treasures,” appeared a terse note informing visitors that “My History is America’s History has closed its operations.” Although it received significant financial support from the Internet company PSINet and, and was created and managed by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the funding was for a limited time, and that period had drawn to a close. The dot-com bust (which brought down PSINet, among others, and led to ownership changes at hurt NEH’s ability to raise private funds. In addition, My History was a “millennium project,” established by Bill Clinton’s White House Millennium Council in November 1999 to “honor the past” as the year 2000 approached. That year, of course, saw a heated election, and George W. Bush installed new leadership at NEH that may have found the populist design of the project less appealing than had the previous director, the folklorist William Ferris. Sadly, the Internet Archive only has copies of four of the stories from My History, and those are from featured famous names such as B.B. King. Stories from the other, lesser known contributors were gated behind a search form and thus could not be archived by the Internet Archive’s computers.

Screenshot of My History is America's History, from the Internet Archive

Figure 43: Now that the site is defunct we can only see a small portion of what was on the national Endowment for the Humanities’ website My History is America’s History by entering its former URL in the “Wayback Machine” of the Internet Archive. While the stories of B.B. King and a few other prominent names have been archived, the narratives of hundreds of lesser-known individuals are gone since they were in a database that could not be accessed by the Internet Archive's computers.

The loss of such a well-funded and popular site should give pause to any historian planning a digital project. Having read about planning, digitization, design, copyright, and building an audience of users and perhaps contributors, readers of this book now likely understand that digital history may require just as much work—and possibly much more—than projects involving paper and ink. Inevitably, any creative work that requires a significant amount of effort will elicit concern about how to ensure its ongoing existence. Although historians may not consider often short-lived materials such as exam study guides valuable, when planning a substantial online history project such as an archive or exhibit, it makes sense to think just as deeply about how to preserve such work for the long run as you do about how to undertake your digital project in the first place. Similarly, if you have spent a great deal of time collecting historical documents over the web, you should be concerned about being able to reproduce those documents for others in the years to come as well as upholding your ethical obligation to contributors to save their donations. It would be a shame to “print” your website on the digital equivalent of the acidic paper used by many Victorian publishers, which is now rapidly deteriorating in libraries around the world.

In this chapter we discuss why such losses are common in the digital realm, and how you can try to avoid such a fate. Although we touch on traditional archiving principles and cutting-edge digital preservation topics and software, as before, our aim is mostly pragmatic. We focus on basic ways that you can prepare your website for a long, if not perpetual, existence online.