Say you wanted to see what The Economist's website looked like way back in 1994 (and yes, there was a website for The Economist in 1994, according to the publication itself). Did the designer treat the logo in the same way? Was the layout any more or less readable than it is now? Did the magazine feature its online-only content prominently? What stories did it choose to cover as print pieces versus web coverage? While these might seem like simple questions to answer--just look it up online, right?--they're not.
That's because The Economist's website from 1994 is impossible to find, even though every single print issue is now available digitally, dating back to 1843, the year the magazine launched. Why this odd situation? Like many creators of early websites, The Economist did not think to preserve its first forays into Internet publishing, as that very magazine reports in its latest Technology Quarterly (dated September 1). And The Economist's own conundrum a compelling example of a larger, vexing trend. A big part of design history (and journalistic history, of course) that should document the continuum of design from the printed page to the web page has huge gaps.
"The rapid turnover of content on the web has made total loss the norm...There could be serious ramifications for education, scholarship, government, and even national security. All are legitimate concerns for the future," as The Economist stated.
One reason why it's impossible to find old sites is that they may have existed before Google and other contemporary search engines existed. But some services and sites exist that catalog early sites in some form. As The Economist mentions, The Wayback Machine allows people to view copies of web pages in the Internet Archive, a free online library of sites. However, while the Internet Archive holds 150 billion pieces of content, as The Economist reported, it doesn't hold every single piece of writing, graphics, or video ever published, even by big-media companies--because in the past, their creators didn't make it possible to access them now (er, in the future).
There are some limited online libraries of web design available, I've found, such as those presented by AIGA, a professional organization for designers, in its Design Archives. Search for "website" and you'll see there are a few fascinating screenshots of sites dating from 1996, including a timeless and funny example for an ironic hipster web page for Miller Lite beer, as viewed on the Netscape browser. But looking at this archive, I became even more aware that many of such sites are now lost. All that's left of those catalogued by AIGA are a few static screenshots, such as the entry for the Miller Lite site, but not the interactive sites in their entirety, or even facsimiles of them.
So what can companies, educational institutions, and individuals do to make sure their website content is saved in its original form for future generations? The Economist points to open-source archives and libraries as depositories. But a huge hurdle is the fact that content is a business--and it might be hard to access already archived professionally created (and published) articles, photos, videos, and graphics hidden behind pay walls to save in other, more public places online. Figuring out solutions for preserving websites could very well be an urgent design challenge of the future--but, ideally, for the present as well, before more are lost.
Image: screenshot from the AIGA's online design archives