The government fiddles while websites burn

by Stephen Tall on January 5, 2010

Semi-welcome news in today’s Guardian, Website archives to be fast-tracked:

New legal powers to allow the British Library to archive millions of websites are to be fast-tracked by ministers after the Guardian exposed long delays in introducing the measures. The culture minister, Margaret Hodge, is pressing for the faster introduction of powers to allow six major libraries to copy every free website based in the UK as part of their efforts to record Britain’s cultural, scientific and political history.

The move is long overdue, though, as the newspaper notes:

The Guardian reported in October that senior executives at the British Library and National Library of Scotland (NLS) were dismayed at the government’s failure to implement the powers in the six years since they were established by an act of parliament in 2003.

The libraries warned that they had now lost millions of pages recording events such as the MPs’ expenses scandal, the release of the Lockerbie bomber and the Iraq war, and would lose millions more, because they were not legally empowered to “harvest” these sites.

The government delayed coming up with a policy in the lead-up to the 2005 general election; it’s unlikely to be sorted out ahead of this year’s general election. And no-one is sure what the Tories have in mind (probably least of all the Tories), so who knows when anything will actually happen?

Does this really matter? Well, yes, it does. Just as the political pamphlets of the C.18th are critical to our understanding of the period, so will the growth of websites, blogs, social networking et al be to understanding how society adapted to (or resisted) technology in the last decade.

It’s easy to dismiss all this as the completism of library-obsessives. But it’s more important than that. At least when libraries such as the Bodleian in Oxford made mistakes, centuries ago – for example, selling Shakespeare’s First Folio because the Library needed the cash, or not accepting Jane Austen’s novels because they weren’t considered serious literature – the fact that these works existed in tangible, published format enabled it to rectify the errors later on by re-acquiring what it had earlier cast aside.

The same is not true of websites. For instance, my own former virtual abode – the almost award-winning, www.stephentall.org.uk – no longer exists. Now, granted, civilisation will probably survive its loss – but it’s merely one among many which the future will have to do without when figuring out how (in my case) elected politicians started utilising the internet.

The only equivalent cultural destruction I can think of is the BBC’s wilful deletion of original, unique and irreplacable episodes of Doctor Who, Pete ‘n’ Dud, and Dad’s Army, among others. Today that’s universally acknowledged as one of the most crass examples of bureaucratic bungling imaginable. I’ve a feeling Margaret Hodge and her Labour Government might be similarly cursed by future generations for their short-sighted apathy.