The Importance of Digital Preservation

As a recent saga involving a well-known journalist and the Internet Archive showed, we probably don’t talk about digital preservation as much as we should. Perhaps now’s a good time to reintroduce the conversation—and the associations and nonprofits that make it happen.

The tale of Joy Reid, her old blog, and the public archives that kept its details online, is messy and complicated.

But it also provides the perfect opportunity to talk about the power of digital preservation.

In case you haven’t been following: In recent months, the MSNBC host was accused of writing homophobic content on her old blog, which dates to her days as a Florida-based political pundit and radio host. An anonymous Twitter user, relying on screenshots grabbed from the Internet Archive, surfaced posts allegedly written by Reid that were at odds with her current public persona. Reid apologized for the statements, but after the same user unearthed more posts last month, Reid implied she never wrote the words that appeared on her blog, an accusation that put the Internet Archive, the home of literally billions of old pages (and a favorite research tool of mine), in an awkward place.

These organizations and others truly do yeoman’s work—work that is often quite challenging, because archival work doesn’t usually come with a lot of shortcuts.

Reid suggested that the posts were “manipulated” by an outside source, an accusation that challenged the integrity of the Wayback Machine, the nonprofit’s signature endeavor that has salvaged webpages for two decades.

Chris Butler, the nonprofit’s office manager, refuted the criticisms and pointed out that Reid’s lawyers asked for the posts to be taken down (the archive declined, though the site was removed from the archive via its robots.txt file), and the organization was later backed up by journalists who independently verified that the posts existed through external sources.

“When we reviewed the archives, we found nothing to indicate tampering or hacking of the Wayback Machine versions,” Butler wrote. “At least some of the examples of allegedly fraudulent posts provided to us had been archived at different dates and by different entities.”

This story involving Reid, who offered another blanket denial over the weekend, highlights to some degree the challenges that archivists—particularly the digital kind—face in the work they do, as well as the fact that there’s often confusion about the roles of organizations like the Internet Archive. Now’s an opportunity to clear the air.

Nonprofits Protecting History Online

The Internet Archive saves everything it can get its hands on, wrinkles and all. Unbiased by the whims of modern culture, the archive simply wants to protect what’s out there, because that information changes so quickly that we otherwise wouldn’t have a record of its existence.

Fortunately, they’re not alone. Digital preservation involves the work of a whole lot of organizations that have interests far more nuanced than the saga of a single MSNBC anchor.

The space covers organizations as diverse as the Association for Information and Image Management, which represents those focused on the technical aspects of information-organizing work (and whose original name was the National Micrographics Association, which neatly highlights the organization’s roots in archival work); the Ephemera Society of America, which is full of enthusiasts who find value in the things we so easily throw away; and the Society of American Archivists, representing the people and organizations doing the hard work of keeping history safe.

Other organizations, such as the nonprofit news site MuckRock, have different approaches to handling the recovery of archival materials—that website frequently files requests under the Freedom of Information Act that might otherwise go unheeded. And there are even organizations like the Video Game History Foundation, which focus on single sectors.

There is, of course, the Library of Congress, but there’s only so much even the federal government can do to archive and protect information—nonprofits and associations help pick up a lot of extra weight.

Where Your Association Comes Into Play

These organizations and others truly do yeoman’s work—work that is often quite challenging, because archival work doesn’t usually come with a lot of shortcuts.

The best shortcut, really, might be one that every association can take part in: storing information the right way in the first place. That’s easier in the digital era—there’s a lot less paper involved, for one thing—but it still takes time and effort.

On CMSWire last week, TeraThink’s Laurence Hart wrote an excellent piece discussing the importance of preserving historic data long past the point when it’s created. It goes beyond expense reports and emails—it extends to the things that make your company valuable. And, as more of it is being created, much more of it is being thrown out—wittingly or not.

“As time passes, the challenge to find any given piece of information increases. While the odds you will need the information also decreases, its value and importance when you do need it will grow,” Hart explained. “As critical evidence, a piece of history, or part of a large collection of artifacts for trend analysis, rarity can increase information’s value. The new challenge is being able to access the information.”

As I wrote last year, historical materials can be a great kick in the pants for a content strategy, both on search engines and in your own storytelling efforts. But just as important is considering what you’re doing right now to keep this information available and easy to find and research, and that requires tactical approaches.

This can become especially complex in the era of the cloud, which can put information at your fingertips, but, just as likely, where information might be buried in some random third-party app. (And, yes, GDPR is a competing concern here.)

But there are benefits to making this information easy to find. Having a well-organized database of information at your fingertips, whether on an intranet or your website, can help your association in the modern day, while paying major dividends later.

Do the right things now, and you might have a future worth writing home about.

(malija/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!