Thursday, 26 March 2009

Where did I read that?

I still have a lot of books, especially cookery and recipe books. When I decide to cook one of my favourite dishes I'll go to the book shelf, find the book I want, and thumb though to the recipe I need. I can always use the index as a last resort if that doesn't work. I'd be a bit upset if the book wasn't there. Maybe I'd lent it to someone, or forgot to put back in the right place. But that doesn't happen very often. By and large, I know I can rummage through my book collection for many years to come. Of course, once I've found the book I'm looking for, the recipes are always in there, where they always were, just the same.

Back in 1998 when we were running courses for Headteachers and ICT co-ordinators on using the Internet I always chose recipes as the way to get the point across about searching, at the time using Alta Vista, in pre-Google domination days. Think of what you have in your fridge and store cupboards, type the ingredients into the search box and hey presto, dinner. Even the most odd combinations would throw up some interesting recipes. I wonder, though, how many are still out there, on the same pages, on the same websites eleven years later. If not, does that mean they weren't any good?
I think there is a tendency to assume that the content on the Internet just keeps being added to, because we know that there is more and more all the time. Not true, of course. Yes, the amount of stuff keeps getting bigger, but a lot keeps disappearing too. Not necessarily because it wasn't much good, or that nobody wanted to look at it, but for a whole raft of reasons. No wonder the archivists are tearing their hair out, wondering how they can preserve what is essentially a continually changing scene. The British Library runs a web archiving project to preserve web sites that it considers to be particularly important in the UK domain, and there are others around the world, but between them they will only preserve a tiny proportion of the 'lost' web pages. The big search giants like Google visit every web page regularly and cache the content, but their purpose is to enable us to rapidly find what is actually still there, not what used to be.
One of the key advantages of the Internet as a source of information is that it should be up to date in a way that printed matter can never be. It is this relentless pursuit of the currency of the information that drives web editors to continually purge their websites, removing material that no longer has an owner and which can no longer be updated or validated. Just recently I have tried in vain to find a number of useful web pages that I remembered from several years ago, including on our own corporate web site, and there is a strange sense of helplessness when you realise that they aren't there any more and there is nothing whatever you can do about it. I suppose it's similar to the way that early TV and radio delivered live broadcasts before recording and archiving became possible and commonplace. It was about the 'now' only. The Internet is about now and the very recent past, but how long in the past is totally random and doesn't follow any rules.
So the Internet isn't like a very big library after all. They behave in very different ways. The books in the library are all snapshots in time. They are certain and their contents are secure and unchanging. You can reference information in a book right down to the page, the paragraph and the line. With that reference in your hand you can always go to the source. The Internet is the antithesis of this in both concept and its existence.
I have listened to a lot of presenters over the last few years at numerous conferences banging on about bringing teaching and learning up to date and equipping young people with the skills they need for the 21st century and the information age (much of which I agree with), but I find difficulty with the over reliance on the Internet as a source of information, other than when it gives you access to printed material in digital form (such as the complete works of Shakespeare, or a newspaper archive for instance). Many of the information sources that young people discover through searching the Internet are the ephemeral web pages that this blog entry is about. I don't know whether it matters. I don't know if I want this year's students to have access to all the same good material that last year's students found, or the ones before that. There is all the new stuff, after all, and more of it. Maybe it is all about 'now' and maybe that's the way it should be. But why do I feel uneasy? Is a life without books a good thing unless we find a way of replicating the permanence and the certainty?
This BBC News web page from March 2002 has been preserved in all its glory. Maybe they learnt their lesson after losing all of those episodes of Dr Who.