Is the Wayback Machine enough?

The announcement from SciFi.com that it will close SciFiction at the end of the year has sparked a lot of discussion. One of the many points touched on that is worthy of expansion is mentioned by Locus Online‘s Mark Kelly. In a post entitled “Into the Aether“, Kelly pondered what happens to defunct websites? How do we access the material that was published after the website has been taken down? After all, paper magazines and books have a life long after their publication date. You can usually pick up old issues second hand, or in libraries, and I own any number of books published by now defunct publishers. What do you do if you want to access material from a defunct website?

The best answer is to go to The Internet Archive’s ‘Wayback Machine’ (www.archive.org). The IA is a non-profit that was founded to build an ‘Internet library,’ with the purpose of offering permanent access for researchers, historians, and scholars to historical collections that exist in digital format. It’s Wayback Machine spiders the web making full and partial copies of websites. It currently archives 40 billion web pages (according to its own site information).

Although it is a good thing, there are problems with the Wayback Machine. The first is that copies are often partial, or difficult to find. For example, following the announcement that SciFiction was to close, I decided to research what fiction Ellen Datlow had edited for publication online. Looking back at Omni Online I struggled to find a full copy of Omni’s short fiction from 1995 to 1998. Some of it was not there, and to get to other pieces I had to navigate through multiple iterations of the old Omni site, often stumbling down blind alleys to no longer extant pages. There was a more complete copy of Event Horizon (1998/1999), but the SciFiction copy was also incomplete, containing a full copy of Suzy McKee Charnas’s “Peregrines” (removed from the current SciFi.com site at the request of the author), but missing anything from this year (for example). Some of the omissions are because people have asked for material to be removed, or because web pages are set not to be archived, but in many cases it’s just not possible to archive everything.

The question that then follows is, to what extent are works published online ‘lost’ when the originating website goes offline. Well, while the record of the periodical becomes difficult to trace, and its own story may ultimately be lost, but many of the stories published do become widely accessible. For example, stories like Dan Simmons’ “Looking for Kelly Dahl” (Omni Online), Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat” (Event Horizon”, and Andy Duncan’s “The Pottawottamie Giant” (SciFiction) have all been fairly widely reprinted and access to them was or is unlikely to be affected by the closure of a website. The fate of stories like Michael Bishop’s “Cyril Berganske” (from Omni, and only reprinted once since) or A.R. Morlan’s “Ciné Rimettato” (from SciFiction, and never reprinted), is less sure, though.

Is there a solution? Well, supporting The Internet Archive is a good start. Encouraging the print publication of material is better, and even just ensure good bibliographical records is worthwhile. Otherwise, a goodly portion of the current range of short fiction being published will be lost, something the field could ill-afford.

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