Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Blog as Historical Record

One day, many years from now, historians will be looking back on this era in an attempt to conceptualize what we experienced and how we dealt with it. A good historian will peruse a wide variety of sources in their effort to put the pieces of the historic puzzle together. I'm quite sure that blogs, in whatever form they can be preserved, will be part of their research. Unfortunately, they are going to be an incredibly difficult source for historians to try to use.

Let me illustrate part of the problem with a brief story. Tonight I was looking back on my archives from 2006. Occasionally a post would spark my interest, and I'd click on the link I had made to another story. Sometimes that story was still there, but sometimes it wasn't. Posts which contained dead links became a lot less valuable, and keep in mind, this is only from two years ago. The very thing that have made blogs a venerable force of public opinion, the link, also makes them poor historical records. As websites die, as companies scrub old material from their servers, blog posts lose context, and minus context that future researcher loses the value of the original post. Blogs that rely very heavily on the link like Instapundit will be useless to the future historian.

Part two of the problem is very similar to part one. Blogs themselves will only be temporary records. When I first started this blog, I had delusions of my opinion being part, if only a very small one, of the historical record of my era. The fact is it won't be. One day, this blog will disappear from the internet. Either blogging will fade and Google will kill Blogger, or I'll pass away and the blog will go dormant until such time that Google scours it from its servers and the domain will be made available to someone else who will put ad links up in the place of this blog. Either way, what I wrote and what other bloggers wrote will largely disappear from the historical record. And this applies to all of you who run your own domains, too. Eventually, you'll quit or you become incapacitated or even die, and once that bill for hosting and registration doesn't get paid, the evidence of your influence on this era will disappear as the URL is re-distributed to someone else. This is going to be hell on the future historian, too. They are going to read in an archived newspaper or magazine of some controversy in which blogs played a central part (see Rathergate). They are going to try to dig up that original blog material, but they are going to have to piece it together as best they can from secondary sources as the original blogs will be long gone.

A company like Google could conceivably end up being a repository of all of this electronic information, but I would be very, very nervous about relying on one or two companies holding an archive of all of this electronic information. They could easily choose at some point in the future to save money by reusing the massive amounts of storage they own, essentially recording over any archived information. Worse yet, e-warfare could wipe those records out. If I were at a leading historical library, say, The Wisconsion State Historical Society, I would begin my own small scale effort at preserving these electronic resources. It would not make sense for one of these libraries to try to preserve all of the electronic media out there, but it would make sense for them to focus on some specific areas of interest and store them either electronically or in hard copy form with appendices consisting of linked information. It could pay off in our lifetimes, much as the preservation of Ron Paul newsletters has, but it most definitely will pay off for historians beyond our lifetimes. Today we regret the loss of the Library of Alexandria. In the future, we may regret the loss of the blogosphere to the ether.

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