Caught in the web: historians and the ‘born digital’

Monday 8 May 2017

The excitement of instant information from the internet for archivists and historians has been tempered by concerns about the shelf life of data — the so-called ‘black hole’ of lost material — and the rise of a new generation of ‘born digital’ government archives.

For five days (12–16 June), academics, researchers, archivists, curators and IT developers from across the world will converge on London to address these issues at a Web Archiving Week event hosted by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and the British Library.

‘The internet is an unprecedentedly informative and varied source for historical research, but also an exceptionally vulnerable one if we don’t plan how to collect, preserve and provide access to it,’ explains Jane Winters, professor of digital humanities at the School of Advanced Study. ‘Preserving and presenting this material as a coherent archival whole is far from straightforward.’

The week’s activities will start with a two-day ‘Archives unleashed’ datathon. It aims to develop new open-source tools and approaches to web archives, and to kick off collaboratively inspired research projects. 

The centrepiece of the week-long programme takes place on 14–16 June at Senate House, the venue for a major international conference, and in the British Library Knowledge Centre. Work to archive the web began in 1996, and this multi-disciplinary event, combining the second RESAW (A Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials) meeting and the annual IIPC Web Archiving conference, aims to explore the value of this vast information resource for scholarly use.

It will highlight innovative research, investigate the challenges and benefits of working with the archived web as well as identify opportunities for incorporating web archives in learning and teaching.

A ‘Web archives: truth, lies and politics in the 21st century’ public debate on the evening of 14 June (6–8.30 pm) at the British Library, will investigate how web and social media archives help ‘digital citizens’ navigate the complex and changing information landscape. Part of the Library’s series of Digital Conversations, it is chaired by Eliane Glaser, author of Get real: how to see through the hype, spin and lies of modern life.

Confirmed speakers include: Jane Winters (chair of digital humanities, School of Advanced Study); historian Valérie Schafer, (French National Center for Scientific Research); Jefferson Bailey (director, Web Archiving at the Internet Archive) and Andrew Jackson, web archiving technical lead, British Library).

Ian Cooke, head of contemporary British collections at the British Library, says ‘The range and quality of presentations given this week will demonstrate how far web archiving has developed over the past 20 years, from technical innovations to keep pace with the changing web, through to tools and methods to support curation of web-hosted content, and to analyse and investigate the historical, social and political importance of the archived web.’

Web Archiving Week is hosted by the British Library and the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and organised with the support and assistance of RESAW, which started at Denmark’s Aarhus University in June 2015, the International Internet Preservation Consortium (IIPC), The National Archives and Archives Unleashed. Archives Unleashed 4.0 is sponsored by the British Library, Rutgers University, University of Waterloo, the National Science Foundation and the IIPC.


Notes to Editors:

1. For further information, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8653  /

2. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2015-16, SAS: welcomed 786 research fellows and associates; held 2,007 research dissemination events; received 24.4 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 194,145 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities: Being Human. Find out more at follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

3. The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world-class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.

4. International Internet Preservation Consortium (IIPC) is a membership organization dedicated to improving the tools, standards and best practices of web archiving while promoting international collaboration and the broad access and use of web archives for research and cultural heritage. Formally chartered in 2003 at the National Library of France with 12 participating institution, it now has over 50 members from 45 countries. Find out more at and @NetPreserve

5. The University of London is a federal university and is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the university is recognised globally as a world leader in higher education. Its members are 18 self-governing institutions of outstanding reputation, and nine research institutes. Learn more about the University of London at