January 8, 2004

The value of archives

Yesterday's postings made me take a closer look at the information about the town available on the web and how long it lasts.

First, Town Clerk Bambi Hollenbeck's saying that the Town was getting a new web site soon led me to look again at what was there now and wonder a bit more about the older minutes I remembered reading a few years ago but can't find now.

Then the piece where I cited the archive-less Star-Gazette made me take a few steps back and admire that the Ithaca Journal is building a permanent archive. It's not something that they advertise, but it's a great way to make them the source for information on the Ithaca area. All kinds of search queries bring me back to the Journal, even when I don't expect it. Sometimes I can't find things I know I read in the paper, but it turns out that there are a few ways to read information if you're willing to play with the URLs directly.

For instance, I remember reading the letters to the editor on the Saturday right before this past election. The election was Tuesday, November 4, so the Saturday had to be November 1. Looking at the URLs the Journal uses for their past opinion pages, it becomes clear quickly that they always have the format http://www.theithacajournal.com/news/stories/date/opinion/ , where date is in YYYYMMDD format. Getting to November 1 requires plugging in 20031101, for http://www.theithacajournal.com/news/stories/20031101/opinion/. That'll bring you to the last round of letters before the election, and to former Supervisor Mark Varvayanis' guest editorial on fire department funding. You can do the same with local news stories.

Of course, there's no guarantee that the Journal will continue to be this generous about their archiving policy. They could start charging for archives, throw the whole thing away, or even disappear. Most sites change over time, and preserving old data isn't always a priority. For this, there's the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. If you visit the Internet Archive, you can enter a URL and get a history back of its prior incarnations. You can even bookmark the results, and navigate within them. (Not everything is always archived, but a lot is.)

For example, you can explore the Town of Dryden site in a variety of incarnations. For the website as it looked under a Republican administration, you can visit the April 29, 1999 version. The oldest version available seems to be December 12, 1998.

Unfortunately, searching for the Ithaca Journal produces a "blocked site error". Given that the Journal updates every day and the Internet Archive tends to visit less frequently, the results might not be complete anyway, just as search engine results for the Journal are incomplete. Even the Dryden site hasn't had an archive update since June 21, 2003.

Despite these limitations, the Internet Archive can be very very helpful. Want to read the 2000 Town Board Minutes? Visit the Town Page as it was December 4, 2000, before the 2000 archives were taken down. (The December minutes for that year don't appear to have made it into the archive, unfortunately.) 2001 Town Board Minutes are also available, as are links to the ambulance proposals which preceded the fire department controversies.

Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, you can even combine these sets of archives. Take a look in those pre-election letters for a complaint that:

The original Town of Dryden Web site was conceived, initiated, registered, designed and published by my wife and I (content and graphics) under the direction of then Supervisor Jim Schug. This was done for free in support of our community.
Under the current supervisor's administration the Web site has been poorly modified/updated and our names were removed from the credits at the bottom of each page. The Democratic Party and supporters cleverly tell only select pieces of facts and issues to try and make you believe the current supervisor is doing a great job. Upon further scrutiny and investigation you may find out differently. We are in desperate need of a change in Dryden's supervisor and board.

Then visit the last available view of the Town of Dryden site under the previous supervisor and use View|Page Source (Mozilla) or View|Source (Internet Explorer) to see the page source. Look for a lot of asterisks about three-quarters of the way down and a "Dear Diane & Jim" message in a comment.

It seems the removal of names took place in a prior administration (Jim Schug's) and the complaint in the letter is a false charge. There was no way to respond at the time - and I doubt that particular charge by itself had a huge impact - but it's worth making clear when things aren't right.

Archives are dangerous things. I've had to eat crow a few times myself, especially when I changed my mind on a hard-fought issue. At the same time, though, they're incredibly powerful resources of information that can be used to help figure out which "facts and issues" are worth examining more closely.

Posted by simon at January 8, 2004 6:28 AM in , ,
Note on photos