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The Wayback Machine

Why Does The Internet Have No Historical Directory?

pbumpI went to Ohio State. This means that, before I continue, I have to note that: yes, their football program has not excelled in big games of late. Now then.

For those of you who have never been to OSU’s campus, I imagine you’d be pleasantly surprised. Certainly it’s enormous and sprawling, but the central campus feels, particularly in the fall, like a small New England town — lots of brick, grass and trees. (Compare this with the University of Michigan’s campus, which has all of the elegance and charm of Vladisvostok, circa 1983. December 1983.) (I failed to mention that I also am required to insult Michigan, but that one you probably knew.)

The cornerstone of the campus is the Thompson Library. It towers over the Oval (visible in this this Google Street View shot), some twelve floors of books of every sort resting, at least when I was there, on a first floor containing a sprinkling of computers, periodicals and microfilm. It was obvious in its metaphor — importance made manifest through size.

This MacBook Pro in my lap, of course, gives me access to hundreds of thousands times as much information. But it doesn’t give me tangibility or, more importantly, a sense of space, of quickly learning where — and what — information can be found. Of course, I wouldn’t give up the infinite capacity of the Internet solely for the sake of knowing where the boundaries of information lie, but for those interested in history, this is an important omission. Walking into Thompson (or any) library, there is an index articulating everything that is included and where it is. The Internet has no such directory, just an earnest tour guide in Google who can tell you what he’s seen.

The problem of hidden information is exacerbated by the ad hoc nature of the Internet. In the same way that the world is documented in the moment by those capturing what interests them, our history is being cobbled together by individuals interested in preserving as much of what has happened as they can. While much of this is undertaken by academics, a lot comes from the general public, seeking to memorialize 8-bit video game machines or manuals to vintage cars or old newspaper ads (in this case, captured from the aforementioned and now-obsolete microfilm). It’s not all pop culture items, of course, but pop culture has an advantage — that little word “pop.” The more people interested in something, the more likely it is to transition to immortal status on the Web.

This is all prompted by my stumbling across three fantastic tools or collections of history, purely by chance. No tour guide, no directory. So in the spirit of the helpful guy at the information desk, let me share them with you:

  1. Duke University recently announced a project to put old television ads online for free through iTunes. The collection has great breadth, but its depth is remarkable. Want to check out 98 Schick ads? You’re in luck.
  2. For those of you seeking a truly authentic atmosphere as you watch a 1950s ad for asbestos kitchen tile, Google Books just announced that they’ve digitized the entire Life magazine collection. The collection (which can be perused here) is perhaps the premier documentation of idealized American society for several decades in the middle of last century. Print them out, bind them, and put them on your coffee table next to your Scotch-and-water and ashtray. And then watch Mad Men.
  3. One of my favorite tools, though, comes from the old Gray Lady, whose longevity pays some benefits. In addition to the clever Times Machine, which makes available scans of entire papers from 1850 to 1922, the paper has a Twitter account, @timestraveler, which relays stories from the paper 100 years ago today. Seeing these articles appear in my Twitter feed occasionally throws me off — such as a link to a piece about the 300th anniversary of New York City, which caused me to do a double-take.

None of these tools are a natural fit with a traditional library, admittedly, but it’s frustrating to have to stumble across them. Like a museum with a closed wing, it makes you wonder what exactly you’re missing. Libraries, like newspapers, still have a role in an evolving world of information — and can offer best practices for whatever succeeds them.

Speaking of, congratulations to Columbus and The Ohio State University for managing to each maintain daily newspapers. Apparently, that’s a trickier task for some folks.

Philip Bump is a technology and communications consultant in New York City who will be writing an occassional column for Mediaite about the intersection of history and the Internet called “The Wayback Machine.” Follow him on Twitter here.

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