By Alyssa Yancey
When President Clinton took office in 1992, few people could have foreseen the technological boom that would take place during his tenure. The exponential growth of computer technology and the World Wide Web between 1992 and 2000 resulted in millions of Clinton administration web sites and no protocol on how to preserve them before George W. Bush took office.
It was then that the University of North Texas libraries, an affiliated archive of the National Archives and Records Administration, recognized that the responsibility of libraries had grown beyond archiving books and other print materials. In 1997, UNT partnered with the U.S. Government Printing Office to create a prototype digital depository that would serve as a final resting place for defunct government web sites. The result is UNT’s CyberCemetery at govinfo.library.unt.edu.
“Our initial impetus to form the CyberCemetery was the soaring popularity of the web in the mid to late ’90s,” says Cathy Hartman, assistant dean of the UNT libraries for digital and information technologies, who earned her master’s in library science from UNT in 1991. “We realized that the countless government web sites being created would be lost forever when agencies were decommissioned or absorbed into a new administration. And we did not want to stand by and watch these sources disappear.”
The National Archives and Records Administration relies on UNT’s specialized expertise to preserve numerous government web sites that would otherwise disappear from the historical record, especially as web sites become increasingly important as records of federal activity, says Robert Spangler, an IT specialist with NARA.
“Our work with UNT’s CyberCemetery has been especially productive,” Spangler says. “Their technical expertise in leading-edge web archiving techniques has been applied to a number of federal sites, most notably the records of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9-11 Commission). Their work includes the actual ‘harvesting’ of the web content itself, along with making available this historically significant material to the public on a continuing basis.”
Since establishing the CyberCemetery 12 years ago, UNT has become higher education’s largest harvester of government web sites with topics spanning national security, bioethics, Hurricane Katrina, gambling, online security, Social Security and tax and health care reform. The CyberCemetery gets nearly 5,000 hits a day and more than 1 million a year.
After successfully helping preserve numerous sites from the Clinton administration, UNT once again was called on to help preserve the government record at the close of the Bush administration. In fall 2008, as Bush’s term came to a close, a number of programs lost funding, including the USA Freedom Corps, an organization created by Bush to promote volunteer service, and Helping America’s Youth, the first lady’s effort to raise awareness about the challenges facing young people. The UNT libraries harvested both sites, and they will be added to the CyberCemetery in February.
UNT also worked with the Internet Archive, the Library of Congress and the California Digital Library to harvest web sites that would continue to exist under the Obama administration but would no longer include the Bush administration’s content, such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s web page.
UNT primarily was responsible for harvesting sites covering topics relevant to its academic programs and with the most impact on the Dallas-Fort Worth area, says Suzanne Sears, head of UNT’s government documents department, which manages the CyberCemetery in collaboration with the technical experts in the digital projects department. Included were sites from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as sites from agricultural, environmental and oil and gas agencies.
“We spent several months prior to the change of administration harvesting sites because we knew that, once Obama took office, the Bush pages would be lost,” says Sears, who recently was elected chair of the Federal Depository Library Program’s Depository Library Council to the Public Printer. “By 12:01 p.m. on Inauguration Day, the White House pages already had been changed to reflect the change in administration.”
Hartman predicts that the Internet Archive will begin making content from Bush administration web sites accessible this winter; however, she says that individuals interested in accessing a site through the archive will need to know the exact URL associated with the site when it was functional. The UNT libraries recently earned a grant of more than $630,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to help in the development of a user-friendly system for accessing preserved web sites.
Researchers studying the presidency find the collection of former government sites invaluable. James Mueller, associate professor of journalism and author of Towel Snapping the Press: Bush’s Journey From Locker-Room Antics to Message Control, says capturing the visual content from web sites is essential for researchers interested in comparing how administrations present information to their audiences, including the media and the American public.
“The Internet is an invaluable tool for researchers. It is much faster than having to track down printed information in a depository library,” Mueller says. “Additionally, once web sites are lost, the informational content often remains, but the visual presentation often disappears. For someone like me, who studies political communication, that could be very detrimental.”
It is not unusual for the libraries’ government documents web sites to be used as a resource by researchers as far away as the United Kingdom, South Korea and Australia. The department has provided the general public with free government information since 1948 as part of the Federal Depository Library Program.
Starr Hoffman, librarian for digital collections who earned her master’s in library science from UNT in 2006, says the CyberCemetery houses more than 39,000 HTML, PDF, audio and video files.
“I remember one instance when a researcher was looking for the 9-11 Commission Report and our print edition was checked out,” Hoffman says. “I was able to provide the individual with the URL to the report in the CyberCemetery. We also run into cases where particular sources are no longer in print, but are available digitally.”
Tom Miles, a doctoral student and research assistant in UNT’s Department of Political Science, collects data for Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, an assistant professor and a leading authority on the U.S. presidency. Miles, who worked on a project examining how the president interacts with Congress, says that nearly all of his data collection is done online using key word searches of presidential speeches.
“My generation automatically goes to the Internet first,” Miles says. “It will be a great asset to have so many of the Bush administration’s web sites archived in one place on the UNT server. If those pages were not preserved, it would make the research I work on much more difficult. This is a valuable resource for researchers.”
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