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The memory of a nation in a digital world

Act quickly or our intellectual record will disappear down a black hole.

New Statesman
What are social networking sites doing to our collective memory? (Photo: Getty Images)

It is an irony of the digital age that at a time when we are used to having easy access to seemingly endless information and knowledge, so much of it is disappearing into a digital black hole. For 450 years the concept of legal deposit has helped to preserve the nation’s intellectual record. The requirement for publishers and distributors to send one copy of anything they publish in print to the British Library has been vital in building up a collection which now contains some 150 million items. 

In 2003 the Legal Deposit Libraries Act extended the same principle to cover digital content. However, nine years later we are still waiting for the legislation to be implemented. We have just come to the end of the third consultation on new regulations in just two years. While all the talking and redrafting has continued, vast amounts of our digital heritage have disappeared for ever.

People’s thoughts and experiences are increasingly recorded on websites, blogs, Tweets and other social media rather than in the diaries and letters which have survived from the past. Given the ease with which websites can be updated the lifespan of anything that is written online is considerably shorter than the printed word. 

The oldest example of writing can be found on clay tablets that are over 5,000 years old. We recently acquired the oldest surviving European book, the St Cuthbert Gospel, which is over 1,300 years old. The average life expectancy of a webpage is less than 75 days.

The London 2012 Olympics is generating a great deal of comment and discussion. Much of the story is being told through the websites of sports associations, cultural organisations and online contributions from the general public. While we have been waiting for the new legislation to be implemented we have done what we can to save as much of our digital memory about big stories and events such as the Olympics. This has meant working with publishers to make voluntary agreements to preserve as much digital material as possible. However, until the legislation is implemented the majority of these websites cannot be legally captured and preserved.

It has been estimated that less that 1 per cent of all online activity related to the London Olympics will be saved. Future generations of researchers will also search in vain for much of the reaction to major events such as the 7/7 bombings, the 2009 Parliamentary expenses scandal and the London riots. 

A lot of what appears online may appear very trivial and unimportant. However, we have learnt that it is not possible for any generation to accurately predict what those who come after us will deem to be important. Sometimes what seems insignificant or even goes unnoticed proves to be the gems unearthed by later researchers. Who would have thought that the diary of a young Dutch girl would have become so important? However, if Anne Frank’s thoughts had been kept as a blog or Tweeted rather than written down in a journal, what are the chances that we would still be able to read them today?

It would also be ironic if the web pages and blogs of our media-savvy political leaders were washed away almost as quickly as the ink on Thomas Cromwell’s letters took to dry. Despite the ease with which we can record and communicate our thoughts today, the historians and novelists of the future may struggle to find much of this material and therefore be unable to gain the same insight into today’s Thomas Cromwells.

It is a matter of great regret that it will never be possible to plug the gap in our understanding of UK opinion about major social and cultural issues at the very beginning of the digital age. Will academics in the future feel the same sense of loss about some of this material that we feel today about the missing works of Ancient Greece’s greatest writers and thinkers?

The UK has been in the slow lane when it comes to preserving digital material. Non-print legal deposit is now widespread internationally, including much of Europe, Canada and New Zealand. It is two years since the United States Library of Congress announced that it would be keeping copies of every Tweet. The latest version of the UK Government’s proposed regulations is less than perfect. It would exempt start-ups and micro businesses from depositing offline publications or the need to provide passwords to enable us to harvest their websites.

Given that these businesses account for 80 per cent of publishers, a great deal of information would continue to be lost. The British Library would like to see this exclusion waived completely.  However, the priority now is to implement the legislation without further delay. We must avoid any more of our heritage disappearing forever into the digital black hole and ensure the British Library continues to be this country’s collective memory long into the future.

Dame Lynne Brindley is CEO of the British Library