This week we dig into the procedures that power the NRS Web Continuity Service. We are a multi-faceted service, dealing with numerous stakeholders and subject areas. With that in mind, we need to ensure our processes are efficient and effective, to help us deliver a high quality web archive.
But what do we mean by ‘high quality web archive’? In web archiving, quality can be related to three elements:
Completeness – how much of captured website’s links, text, downloads etc. the crawler has been able to access and capture
Behaviour – how much of the navigational functionalities within the captured website snapshot have been preserved, compared to the live site
The NRS Web Continuity Service went live in February 2017. Delivered as part of NRS’s Digital Preservation Programme, our service allows us to archive selected websites that fall within our statutory and strategic collecting remit, and make all archived snapshots accessible in the NRS Web Archive. After just a few months of operations, we are delighted to say that the service is fully functioning and delivering on what it set out to do. To find out more, keep on reading!
As a national archive, NRS collects the archival records of the Scottish Government, Scottish Courts, and the Scottish Parliament. We also collect the records of many public authorities, Public Inquiries in Scotland, and a selection of private organisations: full details here. This collecting remit extends to websites – which is where the Web Continuity Service comes in.
As we found out last week, web archiving is technically tough. To manage this, we procured the services of a commercial supplier, Internet Memory Research, to deliver the technical elements of our service. This allows us to focus our in-house efforts on stakeholder engagement, appraisal and selection, quality assurance, and service advocacy. See our Service Model document for more details. We’ll talk more about our processes in our next blog.
Our Web Archive operates on a permissions’ basis, whereby we ask website owners to provide us with information ahead of capture to enhance our collection knowledge and permit us to manage access to archived content appropriately. We only archive content in the public domain, but it’s still important to get owners’ insight on any potential copyright or other sensitivities, as well as talk through the benefits of the service for them e.g. support recordkeeping, assist web teams in managing historic content etc.
This permissions’ process has been effective in helping website owners get to grips with the concept of the web archive. Furthermore, it has helped forge closer links between NRS and parts of our stakeholder organisations with whom we’d perhaps not spoken to before e.g. IT teams, web teams, communications. These new connections may prove invaluable to future discussions on transfer of other born digital records.
We capture selected sites every month, giving us flexibility to schedule crawls in line with owners’ requests and to help capture as much unique content as possible e.g. before or after a significant event, during business/website change etc. Each site is normally captured between one and two times a year, creating a representative record of its existence and development.
Our service also has one special trick up its sleeve: Web Continuity, designed to help combat ‘link rot’ on government sites. ‘Link rot’ refers to instances where online information located on a specific web URL is taken down or moved, meaning that if a user navigates to this link, they are likely to receive a ‘404 page not found message’.
To help our stakeholders manage this risk, we provide them with a free opportunity to connect their live website with the NRS Web Archive via Web Continuity redirection. With this in place, when a user navigates to a broken link within the owner’s live site, rather than receive a ‘404’ error message, they will be redirected into the web archive and an automatic search for an archived version of the information will be made and served back with associated branding. This will mean that users will see many fewer broken links and help preserve the online chain of official information. One of our service’s key objectives is to support Scottish Government’s dedication to openness, citizen participation and transparency, and we intend to measure its impact over time.
Welcome to our blog! Over the course of few weeks, we will take Open Book readers on a tour of NRS’s new Web Continuity Service. Web archiving and Web Continuity represent an exciting new era for archiving at NRS, providing a digital tool that directly supports our mission to,
“collect, preserve and produce information about Scotland’s people and history, and make it available to inform present and future generations.”
Stay tuned for bite-sized articles on how this new service operates, and how it will contribute to the development of Scotland’s national archive collection and support the Scottish Government’s transparency agenda.
Websites as archival public records and the ‘looking glass’ into government
Nowadays, when a member of the public wants to understand something about government, the first source they will likely check is an official government website (probably found via Google).
In this multi-channel era, government websites have a critical role to disseminate official, trusted information, so that the government remains accountable and transparent to the citizen.
As a result, government websites form an integral part of the public record. National archives, who capture, preserve and make available public records, are therefore taking steps to capture a representative record of this modern aspect of government. To do so, national archives are creating web archives. Web archives have been around for some time. Nevertheless, the process of web archiving is technically challenging: more on that in our next blog post.
If done well, web archiving has the potential to dramatically alter the way we record, preserve, and analyse the activities of our government and wider society.
Selecting and capturing government websites, evidencing how these change over time, and making the output of this archiving process clear, reusable and interoperable, can create a powerful ‘looking glass’ into modern official business. It can also do this in a scalable and consistent manner.
Furthermore, emerging research is indicating that web archives may form the single most important contextual record for understanding society in the last twenty years, and will continue to do so. Here’s some examples to ponder:
Do you want to understand how US institutions reacted to the September 11th attacks? The Library of Congress has a web archive collection dedicated to this which is free to access, including this archived snapshot from the US Department of State, dated 12th September 2001.
Turning closer to home, the snapshots of the Scottish Parliament website, now captured by National Records of Scotland, provide a navigable resource for the business of Scotland’s devolved legislature, with time-stamped captured content available on Current Bills, MSPs, and special events and visitors to Holyrood.
Observant readers will quickly notice some unusual features about these archived pages; they all have arresting headers to show the user the page is archived and when this occurred, and some of the original dynamic functionality such as search, unfortunately may not work.
What is key though is that these archives have attempted to capture information from these websites as completely and accurately as possible.
In the next blog, we will explore the core technology behind web archiving, its technical challenges, and how archives (and NRS) are responding to this new era of collecting.