[On August 6, 1991, World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee publicly announced his WWW software for the first time. So for the 30th anniversary of the occasion that brought us all here, this week I’ll highlight just a handful of the many wonderful AmericanStudies websites. Share your favs for a crowd-sourced post, please!]
On the frustrating fragility of the internet, and the need for collective memory.
Many years ago now, probably around the time of my 2011 Presidency of the organization, I worked to create the first (to my knowledge at least) webpage for the New England American Studies Association (that webpage has since been sadly lost to time, a fact very relevant to this post as you’ll see; NEASA does have an excellent new site here, thanks to our longtime webmaster and now incoming President Charles Park). I had a few goals for what I wanted on that site (within my very limited skill set as a web designer), but chief among them was to collect online resources and links for and about New England American Studying. In so doing, I had one very definite model for such a site and collection: Crossroads, or more formally the American Studies Crossroads Project, an American Studies clearinghouse site produced by the American Studies Association and hosted by Georgetown University.
Or, well, it was. The reason that hyperlinked version of the site is now located at the Wayback Machine is that, as this goodbye letter from project director Randy Bass details, at some point not long after I used the project as my model the Crossroads team “archived the site and moved on.” Crossroads had been launched in 1993, the same year as yesterday’s subject The Valley of the Shadow and a strikingly early moment in the history of the scholarly internet (and the internet period, as this week’s series reveals), and so it’s entirely understandable that after two decades of groundbreaking online AmericanStudying (and for all the other reasons described in that letter) the team were ready to move on. That’s not in and of itself a problem for future researchers—but the location at the Wayback Machine reminds us that there’s no guarantee that once a site is no longer active, it will continue to be hosted by/available at its existing web address. Indeed, I can testify from the experience of checking and updating the links on my Memory Day Calendar that a significant percentage of such links (at least half, in my experience) no longer work even a few years down the road—ones hosted by academic institutions tend to be a bit more stable, but the example of Crossroads and Georgetown makes clear that that’s not necessarily the case either.
Such is life on the intertubes—and that’s an important thing for all of us producing online scholarship (or online anything) to remember. There’s no guarantee these sites and spaces will survive (yes, even ones owned by companies like Google as this here blogspot is; or big social media giants like Twitter where I ply so much of my online AmericanStudying these days), which means we’d better back everything that we want to preserve up and also that we need to keep finding ways to connect to audiences and communities beyond the online ones (as much as I obviously value those). But at the same time, I think this is a lesson that we can’t simply leave memories to our browser histories (or cookies, or whatever technical term would best apply). Crossroads is a significant part of the story of American Studies in the 1990s and early 2000s, and all of us who work in and around that field need to help remember that, whether we have any way to access the site (as we fortunately currently do through Wayback) or not. The internet may or may not remember, but we can and must.
Last AMST site tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Favorite websites, past or present, you’d share for the crowd-sourced post?