Confessions of a Web Archivist


French National Library, Paris

From IEEE Spectrum:

Every weekday at 5:00 a.m., a nondescript gray van rolls down the underground service road beneath the French National Library, in Paris, and arrives at a svelte glass skyscraper soaring above the bustling Seine River. Here, at the Tower of the Times, the van delivers a tiny but astoundingly rich snapshot of life in this country that takes its cultural heritage very seriously.

The van has been stuffed willy-nilly with two copies each of some 3000 periodicals printed recently in France that are being sent to the library for preservation. One morning last November, the haul includes the dailies Le Monde and L’Humanité, of course, and also the union newspaper Le Travailleur. Among the other lexical artifacts dutifully funneled from the van up into the tower are a booklet of classified advertisements, a concert flyer, several religious pamphlets, Busty Beauties  magazine, and a community newsletter from Bonnes (population 330) announcing a town raffle for three hams, six bottles of wine, and a yogurt-making machine.

“We have a lot of so-called crap, and we’re happy about that,” says Gildas Illien, an archivist at the library. His colleagues in other countries might turn up their noses at hard-core porn, advertisements, and obscure newsletters, but not Illien. “In a hundred years, what’s totally irrelevant or dirty today will end up becoming of extreme interest to historians,” he declares.

The Tower of the Times, where Illien works, is one of four spires, each composed of two perpendicular wings resembling the pages of an open book, that make up France’s newly modernized national library. The archivists here aren’t after just printed material; they’re preserving the electronic, too. In fact, it’s Illien’s daunting task to archive French Web sites—all of them, in all their evanescent, constantly changing, and multimedia splendor.

“A Memory of Webs Past”, Ariel Bleicher, IEEE Spectrum