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Date: April 3, 1997
Contact: Anne Strong
Telephone: (301) 279-9697

This project is featured on the History Associates Timeline.

Documenting the Digital Age

Key figures from the academic, archival, corporate, government, legal, and technology communities came together for the first time at a conference in San Francisco on February 10-12, 1997. “Documenting the Digital Age,” sponsored by the National Science Foundation, MCI Communications Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, and History Associates Incorporated, was a special initiative to discuss the preservation of electronic records. The Internet, electronic mail, and other new media have revolutionized the way documents are created and records kept. The goal of this conference was to launch an effort towards a systematic collection of the history being created on electronic media and the history of the electronic media itself. The conference was unique in bringing together a wide range of public and private participants to discuss priorities and establish partnerships for moving forward with this work.

Since 1987, the Internet has grown exponentially, linking millions of individuals around the world in a network of networks and fostering a new cyberspace culture. Changes in technology, as well as political and social issues surrounding the Internet, have yielded a system today very different from that of only a few years ago. Unfortunately, the record of that evolving Internet is disappearing – every day Web sites are disconnected or news groups fold, too often leaving no permanent trace. The problem of documentation applies not only to the history of the Internet, but the history on the Internet. To a great extent, electronic mail has replaced personal correspondence, and private and government business is handled through internal electronic communication without a paper trail. That documentation, too, is rapidly being lost.

Consider the irony, suggests Nathan Myhrvold, conference speaker and Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft, of a “technology that lets us store digital information with perfect fidelity and make it available to the world incredibly cheaply [but] does not naturally produce a record as its byproduct. . . . The surprising truth is that the early days of the digital age will appear almost pre-literate to future historians. . . . if we don’t save it, it isn’t part of the historical record.”

Efforts have already begun to preserve that history. In 1996, Brewster Kahle established the Internet Archives, which documents current Internet activity by downloading the entire Internet at regular intervals. Yet this archive provides only one of the pieces necessary for a coherent history of the Internet. Still incomplete is a system of documentation that captures activity, information, structure, and context, all of which will be lost forever without a collaborative effort of involved public and private parties. The same is true for government records, according to participants from the National Archives.

During the two-day conference, participants considered essential issues surrounding this endeavor: which data and documents to preserve, how to preserve them, and how to make them accessible and usable. Position papers and discussion sessions addressed varieties of electronic information (e-mail, discussion groups, long-distance computing, and file transfers), complicating factors such as hardware and software obsolescence, and concerns about the adequacy of search tools and privacy protection. The conference concluded with a discussion of the next steps in this important collaborative venture. History Associates Incorporated is now taking the lead in identifying potential sponsors and developing proposals to shape model documentation strategies.

The Documenting the Digital Age conference report, including the program, listing of participants, and position papers is available for download on the History Associates website (8MB, 148 pages, PDF format).

About History Associates
For more than thirty years the historians and archivists at History Associates have demonstrated that history is valuable in the market as well as the marketplace of ideas. They provide professional corporate histories, exhibit content, interpretive planning, historical research, archival services, and collections management services to clients throughout the United States and around the world. History Associates strives to be The Best Company in History®, serving corporate, government, legal, and nonprofit clients from its headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. For more information, call (301) 279-9697 or visit

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