Friday, April 22, 2005

The Ephemeral Nature of the Internet

Rob points out in a comment on my science blogging post that one of the problems related to using a blog as a document of research is the non-lasting nature of work on the internet. I have seen arguments and have made the argument myself that it's possible to ensure the longevity of blogs, but it is not entirely without risk to rely on a blog (or other internet source) as a stable source. As luck would have it, there's an interesting article in Inside Higher Ed that discusses the same problem.
Our time here may be fleeting — “Out, out brief candle!” — but footnotes are not supposed to be. When online citations extinguish, every discipline is befouled, because replication, at the heart of the research process, becomes difficult without stable archiving, which libraries used to provide.
It is probably risky to rely on a service like Blogger--which is free and offers no real assurances that your material won't disappear--as a permanent record of any kind. And this may be a greater problem than copyright as more and more material goes online openly. There are ways of retrieving older versions of web sites (The Way Back Machine, for example) but they, too, are volunteer efforts and not reliable. While I've seen some discussion here and there about libraries attempting to do some archiving of resources that are only available online, there doesn't seem to be good policy in place for how to deal with this. It's up to the librarians to select what should and should not be archived.

And this can also be an issue for hard copies of materials as libraries run out of physical space and make decisions about what to keep and what to put into offsite storage or get rid of completely. An example of something someone might not think to keep came up in the last 24 hours. Intel was seeking a pristine copy of the issue of Electronics magazine that first published "Moore's Law." A British man found a copy and received the offered reward, but one could easily imagine that all copies disappeared or were trashed to make space for newer material. Disaster can also strike (Library of Alexandria anyone?).

Online sources seem less stable and permanent, but it's certainly possible that we can find a solution to that problem. But hard copies are not immune to instability either.