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Archiving in the age of the Internet

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 23, 2004
(Issue 2204, Broadband Entertainment)

In the old days, archiving was a fairly straightforward affair at most publications. You saved one or more copies of each issue, had them bound into large books, and stuck them in your library. Another copy was sent off to be microfilmed or microfiched, and you might even have had duplicates made for the local public library. If not, they were likely to buy them on their own.

And there you had it: A permanent record of every story, photograph and advertisement you ever published. (Or semi-permanent, semi-complete, anyway: The bound editions of the Daily Aztec at San Diego State are all missing the famous naked basketball player edition from the late '70s – each and every one ripped out, from both the SDSU library and the Daily Aztec offices.)

Now, this system, while fairly easy to maintain and obviously comprehensive (minus any torn-out sheets ...), presents some challenges for the researcher or historian looking through this record.

What if an article turns out to be false?

Most reputable publications will run a correction as soon as they realize the problem. That may be the next day, or perhaps not until the next month or year. The New York Times is only now officially acknowledging that its reports from Nazi Germany in the 1930s were highly inaccurate, given that their reporter either ignored or denied the existence of the concentration camps.

So if you're doing research and relying on bound editions or microfilm of a newspaper for some of your information, you could quite easily find yourself in the unenviable position of inadvertently repeating false information.

The age of the 'Net

With the advent of the World Wide Web, many – if not most – newspapers now provide an electronic archive as part of their Web site.

This not only offers a much higher ease of access (you no longer have to physically travel to the newspaper's office or the local library to look through back issues), but offers technological solutions to the problem of correcting erroneous information.

But with that technology comes several ethical quandries.

For instance, should a digital archive preserve a record of everything that was actually printed as it was printed (as with the above method of storing printed copies of every issue), or preserve a record of what the accurate reporting should have been?

The most basic approach to online archiving is to simply transfer the printed product to the Web. In this model, the original flawed article is still archived, as is any correction. But while a search engine capability on an archive database may well bring up both files – the flawed original and the correction – it still allows for the possibility of a researcher missing the correction, and again repeating the bad information.

Because of this, some newspapers prefer to go back into their electronic archives and correct the original article so as not to compound the original flaw through repetition. Under this model, when you go back and click on that article, you see what should have run if no mistakes had been made.

This method, though, is troublesome from the standpoint that it doesn't preserve what actually was published – purists argue that it is not in fact an archive.

Finding middle ground

Fortunately, there are compromises easily devised.

One increasingly popular solution is to archive everything that ran, in its original form. Corrections, though, are linked to the original story – rather than just appearing as separate stories on a subsequent date. So if you're reading the original article which was later corrected, what you'll actually see is that flawed original along with the correction or clarification.

For both researchers and the subjects of flawed reporting, such a system is clearly superior to the old, analogue methods.

However, in cases of truly egregious errors – outright libel in which false accusations are later withdrawn – some publications will revert to the second of the above options: Correcting the original so that the character smear is never repeated. And in those instances, even the most hard-core archival purists are unlikely to squawk too loudly.