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Preserving Digital History

You probably have books on your shelves at home that you haven't looked at in a decade. Yet, should you need to find information in one of them, you can be confident that book will still have the same text, the same photographs, the same cover. You will still be able to read that passage you found so interesting and want to read again.

Image in September 11 Digital Archive Arnold Schwarzenegger for California governor Web site home page, 2003

But the Web page you visit today may not be the same when you return to it a decade later. In fact, it is more unlikely than likely that the Web page will have remained the same. Digital pages change all the time, and the information on that page that you found so useful 10 years ago may have been moved to another Web page -- or it may be gone completely.

Who has been "filing away" and keeping our digital materials the way libraries, archives and people in their homes have done for centuries?

No one, at least not in a systematic way that will make it possible for people to easily find today the important information they accessed using digital technology a decade ago or even yesterday. Until programs such as the Library of Congress National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, much of the nation's - and the world's -- digital heritage was disappearing, never to be recovered.

That is why we say that digital materials are far more fragile than analog, or physical, ones and that it is critical that we have programs such as the Library's to ensure that the intellectual and creative record of our times - much of which is being created only in digital formats - is preserved and accessible to future generations of students, educators and lifelong learners.

Recently, this program made awards to eight institutions and their partners across the country to collect and preserve digital materials in areas as diverse as the 1993 California gubernatorial recall election, won by Arnold Schwarzenegger; LANDSAT images vital to the study of environmental policy of the nation; popular and highly regarded public television programs such as NOVA, American Masters and Frontline; major events and movements of the American South such as the civil rights movement, slave narratives and the Civil War; a voice library that includes documentation of Orson Welles performances, performances of the "March King" John Philip Sousa and Raymond Massey's delivery of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; the unprecedented venture creation of businesses during the Dot Com Era, such as the development of the first Web browser, Mosaic; social information such as how a factory closing affects the population and social policies; and geospatial data that affects policies such as homeland security.

Details of this critical program, which the U.S. Congress asked the Library to lead in 2000, can be inspected at this site.


A. Dave Smith, contributor. Image in September 11 Digital Archive. "My son and I visited New York city for the 2003 NFL draft. I asked if we could visit the WTC Site since we had arrived early on Friday. This image of the iron cross is probably the most vivid in my mind."

B. Arnold Schwarzenegger for California governor Web site home page, 2003. Reproduction information: Not available for reproduction.

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