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History will vanish into the ether

By Toss Gascoigne - posted Monday, 16 May 2005

Tracking down government reports is a growing problem for researchers in Australia. Originally published on the web, many reports have become unavailable or difficult to find.

Government departments are increasingly using the web as their primary means of publication. It's quicker and easier and gives much better access in our wired world. And they save money by printing fewer hard copies.

But problems arise when reports are removed from the web or relocated to a new website. This may be as time moves on and webmasters, under pressure to run a tidy site, decide to cut some of the older material. Or it may be when departments merge or split, and the material is moved to a new address but without leaving a trace behind so it can be tracked.


There are no national protocols for how web-based material should be selected and preserved and made available in a systematic way in Australia today. This is a cause of concern to researchers.

Just how significant is the issue? To find out, I asked this of subscribers to the newsletter of the Council for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences:

The Australian Library and Information Services seminar, “Digital Amnesia”, will address issues relating to the access and management of government publications online. The context is a concern that a number of significant publications have disappeared from a range of government websites. Have you had experience of this? If so, could you provide details?

It was quickly apparent I had touched a nerve. Within two days I had received more than 100 responses.

Respondents gave examples of reports that had disappeared; described their battles to track down material as departments were amalgamated or split; talked about the issues caused as new technologies replaced the old; and proposed possible solutions. Just over half said they had not encountered problems.

Material that had been available on the web but has now disappeared included:

  • The AGPS Style Manual, available in full on the web a few years ago;
  • Ministerial releases issued before 2004 have been recently removed from the Northern Territory Government website;
  • The National Plan for Women in Agriculture and Resource Management [which] came out in the mid 1990s. It was endorsed by state governments and about 130 rural industry organisations, and formed the basis for policy and action for a number of years.

Typical of the stories was:

I teach a course on Youth and Society. One of the essay topics is Youth Allowance. There was a major evaluation of the program online at the beginning of the semester and I included the website reference for students. Come week 6 when they are doing the essay the link has disappeared. There is simply a generic message saying the page cannot be found.

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This an edited version of an address to the seminar "Digital Amnesia: The Challenges of Government Online" organised by the Australian Library and Information Association at the National Library of Australia on April 21, 2005. First published in The Australian on May 11, 2005.

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About the Author

Toss Gascoigne is executive director of the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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