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September 16, 2009

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A cemetery that keeps alive dead Websites

IT was a historian's nightmare. During the change from the Clinton to the Bush administration, Websites affiliated with the Clinton White House went dark, and an unknown number of online documents and files were forever lost.

Such Internet deaths inspired the Cyber Cemetery at the University of North Texas, which preserves government Websites in their final form. The Cyber Cemetery archives sites when commissions or panels expire, allowing the online work of defunct government bodies to live on and remain accessible to the public.

The virtual graveyard was born in the late 1990s when a group of university librarians noticed that Websites affiliated with the Clinton administration were disappearing.

"It was very early in the Web-publishing era for governments ... and these Websites were just going away," said Cathy Hartman, an assistant dean of libraries at North Texas.

"I began conversations with folks about recapturing the sites and keeping them available for public access."

Hartman's concern coincided with those of the federal Government Printing Office, which issued a 1995 report emphasizing the need to preserve electronic publications. North Texas and the printing office eventually joined forces, and early users of the system christened the depository as the Cyber Cemetery.

"It started as a joke. You know, 'Oh, all these dead Websites'," said Starr Hoffman, who oversees the project as the librarian for digital collections at North Texas. "But it stuck, and nobody thought of a better name."

In an increasingly digitized world, the cyber cemetery has become the main publicly accessible depository for government records that don't exist on paper.

Other entities, such as the Internet Archive, take periodic snapshots of Websites to preserve information.

But the Cyber Cemetery, which also has partnered with the National Archives and Records Administration, focuses exclusively on government Websites and captures them in their final and complete form, Hoffman said.

There are 48 archived sites for visitors to view and another nine are coming soon, Hoffman revealed.


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