Comment: Historians will set store by our digital harvest
The average life of a webpage is around six to ten weeks. After that, the information it contains can be lost forever.
This year all that may change. Landmark regulations are expected to be approved by the UK parliament that will save the content of millions of public websites for future generations.
This will allow the historians of the future to understand what Scotland and the rest of the UK was like in the early part of the 21st century by studying what appeared on the internet and in e-journals and e-books.
Until now the National Library of Scotland (NLS) and other major libraries across the UK have been unable to harvest digital content comprehensively because no agreements existed with publishers.
The new regulations, expected to be approved in April, will allow us to capture the nation’s digital published output in the same way we have collected the printed output for hundreds of years.
The significance of this move cannot be underestimated. At a time when huge amounts of content appear only in a digital form, it is vital we have a way of preserving this. The regulations will enable us to start to archive all of the UK web domain – nearly five million websites.
However, the government has to balance the public interest against the risk of harm to publishers’ business models and, in exchange for being able to collect content, there will be strict controls over how it can be used. The main restriction is that users must be physically on the premises of a legal deposit library, such as NLS to access the content. Copying in any digital form is not permitted.
This is a huge step forward and one welcomed by the NLS, British Library and other major libraries which have all lobbied for the regulations needed to make this happen. It will be an enormously rich resource which will be built up over time and allow future generations to understand what we did and how we lived.
• Martyn Wade is National Librarian, National Library of Scotland.
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