History disappears in a digital black hole

National Library of Scotland has warned of a 'digital black hole'.
National Library of Scotland has warned of a 'digital black hole'.
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VALUABLE data relating to the most pivotal moments in modern Scottish history has been lost down a “digital black hole”, the National Library of Scotland (NLS) has warned.

The internet revolution means much of what was once recorded in books or on paper now appears online. But Martyn Wade, chief executive of the NLS, said there is no system for comprehensively preserving this type of information and that online and social media coverage from the past 20 years is fast disappearing.

Among the material that has been lost are webpages relating to the first Scottish Parliament, internet and social media coverage of the 2011 London riots, the 2009 Westminster parliamentary expenses scandal and the July 2005 London bombings.

“People in 100 years’ time will fail to understand why we have not collected material on really important events in Scotland’s history such as the referendum debate on independence and discussions about the Commonwealth Games,” Mr Wade said.

Currently chunks of web content disappear because its creators take it down. While there are regulations allowing the NLS to collect everything printed in the UK, website creators have intellectual property right to their material.

Only a few thousand websites are “harvested” each year but collecting 100 per cent of the material would require preserving 10 million websites.

In 2003 the Westminster parliament passed legislation allowing libraries such as the NLS the legal right to collect and store electronic publications in the same way printed publications have been collected for centuries.

However, there have been long delays in implementing the regulations.

It was not until earlier this year that the UK department of culture, media and sport launched a further public consultation on a set of draft regulations for implementation next year.

Mr Wade said the UK government needed to act swiftly to implement the regulations.

“In Scotland and across the UK we have an outstanding and enviable written heritage. However, we are now well behind many other countries in archiving the web. It is vital that we get the powers we need to save the nation’s digital memory for future generations,” Mr Wade said.

“We hold millions of historic documents dating back centuries and it has been frustrating that we have had no ability to save electronic information from just a few years ago. Knowledge about our past is vital in shaping our future and action is needed to stop important electronic information disappearing down this digital black hole.”

The government says it is working to develop the draft regulations.

Gone missing

• 1999 First websites of the Scottish Parliament

• 2004 Debate on congestion charging in Edinburgh

• 2005 Social media coverage of London bombings

• 2009 Social media coverage of Parliamentary expenses scandal

• 2011 Social media coverage of the London riots

• Anti-Trident website

• Christine May MSP website

• You Scotland website – Scottish grassroots political website