Sorting through my collection of computer magazines recently made me think about the fact that they are nearly gone. The surviving brands such as PC, Computerworld, and Macworld exist only in the digital realm. Paper issues from the 1990s and even the 2000s are now considered “vintage”. More importantly, they serve as an historical record for the IT industry.
That historical record is likely to disappear. Publishers (actually, they rarely use that term these days) are focused on the future, not the past. Old content is archived and forgotten or deleted. You can’t trust what remains for historical accuracy as it has likely been altered at some point. When brands (that’s what they call publications now) fail, their content is cleared from the servers.
I know because I manage the content for a brand at a leading technology publisher. If an older story is likely to compete with a newer story for search engine visibility, I either redirect the older story to the new story or archive the old story. Sometimes we update an older article with new information to keep it relevant. The old version still exists in the content management system, but the general public will never see it again.
So, even if a brand has 20 years of archived articles, that archive is not complete or necessarily in its original form. It becomes an untrustworthy source for researchers and historians. I can research old issues of Computerworld from 1977 and be confident that what I’m reading represents that point in time. I’m not so confident about 10- or 15-year-old articles on the internet. There’s just no way to know that they are still in their original form.
Content that can only exist online is also likely to disappear someday, as the gamer community has recently experienced with several long-established forums shutting down. Eurogamer closed its forums, and game preservationists have lamented the closing of Nintendoage’s forums. Both had become rich archives of gaming history.
Doesn’t all that stuff end up on Archive.org? No, it doesn’t. The Archive crew does awesome work and are quick to jump in, but there are human, legal, and technological limits to what they can do. Even if Archive could save everything, it becomes a single point of failure should something unspeakable happen to that great organization in the future.
To be honest, I’m not sure what can be done about disappearing or revised digital content. It’s not in the commercial interest of content websites to preserve articles, video, graphics, and audio as they were originally published. Print isn’t likely to return, and there are just too many barriers for archiving sites to capture everything. I’d be interested to hear from digital preservationists about how they cope with the issue.