How the Librarians Saved History: Harvesting Government Information

The NYTimes recently highlighted the work of the End of Term Presidential Harvest 2016 -- a volunteer, collaborative effort by a small group of university, government and nonprofit libraries to find and save valuable pages now on federal websites.

With the arrival of any new president, vast troves of information on government websites are at risk of vanishing within days. The fragility of digital federal records, reports and research is astounding. 

Currently, no law protects much of it, no automated machine records it for history, and the National Archives and Records Administration announced in 2008 that it would not take on the job. “Large portions of dot-gov have no mandate to be taken care of,” said Mark Phillips, a library dean at the University of North Texas, referring to government websites. “Nobody is really responsible for doing this.”

Enter the End of Term Presidential Harvest 2016. The project began before the 2008 elections, when George W. Bush was serving his second term, and returned in 2012.

The ritual has taken on greater urgency this year, Mr. Phillips said, out of concern that certain pages may be more vulnerable than usual because they contain scientific data for which Mr. Trump and some of his allies have expressed hostility or contempt.

And this small group can use all of the help it can get. People can contribute to the effort by proposing a web page for preservation by the archives. Proposed pages should be on federal websites, since many states also use .gov in their addresses. A simple tool for nominating a page is at digital2.library.unt.edu/nomination/eth2016/.


As the article author notes, for the 10 people working on laptops at the academy, hunting for important federal records, another title might serve: How the Librarians Saved History.

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