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Digital Archaeology on Display

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Websites in the exhibit were displayed on hardware from the same era as the site, using browsers from the time. (Photo by Abbie Grotke)

The following is a guest post by Abbie Grotke, Web Archiving Team Lead at the Library of Congress.

The web turns 20 this year, and while national libraries, archives, universities, and other cultural heritage institutions have been archiving the web since the late 1990s, some key examples of the early web are not in any archive. The first website from World Wide Web co-inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, created in 1991? Gone. Not even a screenshot exists.

Enter Jim Boulton of Story Worldwide, passionate curator of the Digital Archaeology exhibit, which made its New York debut last week at Internet Week. This is Boulton’s second showing of the exhibit – it first debuted in London at Internet Week 2010. The exhibit, co-sponsored by Story Worldwide and Google, showcased 28 “bygone” websites on vintage hardware and software from the same time period of each site’s launch. Story Worldwide describes it as an “exhibition that charts the disruptive moments of web design and celebrates the characters behind its radical evolution.

I had the pleasure of spending opening day of Internet Week (last Monday) at the exhibit, and sharing a stage with Jim; I was invited to give a keynote for the Digital Archaeology exhibit to talk about the Library of Congress efforts to archive the web in the last 11 years, the accomplishments to date, the challenges, and collaborations we’ve undertaken over the years. Jim spoke of the importance of preserving the record of the evolution of websites and web design, urging creators of websites to think about preserving their own content, not only for business record purposes, but so this important part of our history is not lost.

I began my own tour of the exhibit by surfing a 1992 version of Berners-Lee’s website. You can see a version on the W3C website . While clicking around using an oversized, awkward mouse (remember when the scroll bar was on the left side of the screen? Me neither!), I was reminded of the early subject categorizations of the web .

Other highlights included The Blue Dot (1995), an art and design playground by pioneering online agency Razorfish, and the self-destructing website for the film “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), which brought video to the web long before YouTube entered our lives. And remember typing in commands to make Burger King’s Subservient Chicken dance around your screen, way back in 2004? The chicken was on display and ready to interact. I was particularly interested to stroll down memory lane with one of the Web’s first e-zines, Launched in 1995, Word Magazine offered original stories, interactive art and more. It folded in 2000. Unfortunately the computer was acting up, so I couldn’t play around with the site at the exhibit.

The show generated quite a bit of interest from attendees and the press, much to our delight. Boulton and I spoke with ReadWriteWeb, the New Jersey Star-Ledger , folks from Rhizome who are preserving digital art, and PSFK , a blog covering design. Later in the week, NPR’s On the Media stopped by.

Motorola cell phone, ca. 1992 (Photo by Abbie Grotke)

With Internet Week speakers Senator Charles Schumer and Arianna Huffington on a nearby stage (not at the same time), I witnessed visitors to the exhibit who were in awe at seeing the classic hardware, software, and websites paired with issues of Wired magazine from the same time period and gadgets such as an old Motorola cell phone, an early Playstation, and Handspring Visors. More than one nearby attendee noted that “it really wasn’t that long ago!” reminding us all that things move so quickly in this digital age, and that if we don’t act quickly to preserve web content, it might soon disappear.

Here are some questions to think about:  What are some websites that you used to visit but no longer exist? With so much web content today, what do you wish was preserved for future generations?

Comments (8)

  1. I find it valuable to have this tecnology time capsule of archived info to look back on. “Zager and Evans” sang it best .. In the year 2525 …….

  2. The probelm is also that no written records of anybody will tend to survive with the loss of e-mail. Wo know of Shakespeare’s writings because they were not using an informatic base. We know of the life of persons in the early 20th Cent. because their letters survive. What will survive, and how, in the late 21st Cent., not to say of Roman, Early Chinese or Biblical records….

  3. Hi Abbie, great post, thanks again for your support. Sorry about the technical hitch. You can check out at The design and content still holds it own, which is testament to Marisa Bowe’s editorial skills and Yoshi Sodeoka’s design brilliance. Let’s all go on an audio-visual anti-adventure!

  4. Wow,
    Why someone don’t try to reply to the 2 questions that have posted the author? i am interested to read more… 🙂

  5. I am glad to visit your blog.. I found this post is really useful one.. I love reading this kind of stuff. Your blog is one of a kind, i love the way you organize the topics. Thanks!

    • Thanks for your nice comment! We are glad that you find these postings useful.

  6. Take a look at that phone! That image took me back… haha. Thanks for the great post.

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