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The MH17 Crash and Selective Web Archiving

Mon, 07/28/2014 - 1:59pm
Butch Lazorchak, US Library of Congress

Screenshot of 17 July 2014 15:57 UTC archive snapshot of deleted VKontakte Strelkov blog post regarding downed aircraft, on Internet Archive Wayback Machine.The following first appeared as a guest post by Nicholas Taylor, Web Archiving Service Manager for Stanford University Libraries, on the US Library of Congress Web site on July 28, 2014.

The Internet Archive Wayback Machine has been mentioned in several news articles within the last week  (see here, here and here) for having archived a since-deleted blog post from a Ukrainian separatist leader touting his shooting down a military transport plane which may have actually been Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. At this early stage in the crash investigation, the significance of the ephemeral post is still unclear, but it could prove to be a pivotal piece of evidence.

An important dimension of the smaller web archiving story is that the blog post didn’t make it into the Wayback Machine by the serendipity of Internet Archive’s web-wide crawlers; an unknown but apparently well-informed individual identified it as important and explicitly designated it for archiving.

Internet Archive crawls the Web every few months, tends to seed those crawls from online directories or compiled lists of top websites that favor popular content, archives more broadly across websites than it does deeply on any given website, and embargoes archived content from public access for at least six months. These parameters make the Internet Archive Wayback Machine an incredible resource for the broadest possible swath of web history in one place, but they don’t dispose it toward ensuring the archiving and immediate re-presentation of a blog post with a three-hour lifespan on a blog that was largely unknown until recently.

Recognizing the value of selective web archiving for such cases, many memory organizations engage in more targeted collecting. Internet Archive itself facilitates this approach through its subscription Archive-It service, which makes web archiving approachable for curators and many organizations. A side benefit is that content archived through Archive-It propagates with minimal delay to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine’s more comprehensive index. Internet Archive also provides a function to save a specified resource into the Wayback Machine, where it immediately becomes available.

Considering the six-month access embargo, it’s safe to say that the provenance of everything that has so far been archived and re-presented in the Wayback Machine relating to the five-month-old Ukraine conflict is either the Archive-It collaborative Ukraine Conflict collection or the Wayback Machine Save Page Now function. In other words, all of the content preserved and made accessible to date, including the key blog post, reflects deliberate curatorial decisions on the part of individuals and institutions.

A curator at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives with a specific concern for the VKontakte Strelkov blog actually added it to the Archive-It collection with a twice-daily capture frequency at the beginning of July. Though the key blog post was ultimately recorded through the Save Page Now feature, what’s clear is that subject area experts play a vital role in focusing web archiving efforts and, in this case, facilitated the preservation of a vital document that would not otherwise have been archived.

At the same time, selective web archiving is limited in scope and can never fully anticipate what resources the future will have wanted us to save, underscoring the value of large-scale archiving across the Web. It’s a tragic incident but an instructive example of how selective web archiving complements broader web archiving efforts.

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