Should we try and preserve web sites as part of our cultural history, or should they be left to rot, like a ruined building?

Thoughts on this subject have been blowing around my head recently, mainly because of two things.

The first was my recent and fascinating tour around the Temple Works site in Leeds. I was lucky enough to be able to see this amazing building ahead of its refurbishment and transformation into a cutting-edge cultural and co-working space in Holbeck. Its unique Egyptian-themed facade hides a varied history. It's a groundbreaking building, both in terms of its engineering and the respect with which its employees were treated, and I'm delighted that it's getting the attention it sorely needs to preserve and renew it.

 

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="580" caption="Facade of Temple Works in Leeds"]Facade of Temple Works in Leeds[/caption]

However, the most interesting part of the trip was through the areas which were most recently used by Kays' Catalogue in the mid-'90s. This part of the building was very 'Marie Celeste' in its feel, with much of the paraphernalia of day-to-day working life left behind – plates in the canteen, filing cabinets full of old documents, and so on. The detritus of relatively recent human inhabitance gave it a strange atmosphere - partly ghostly, partly mundane.

 

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="580" caption="Ghostly photo of an old netball team, inside Temple Works"]Ghostly photo of an old netball team, inside Temple Works[/caption]

As Temple Works stood on the day of my visit, it was at times creepy, funny and sad. I often think it's a shame that places like this have to be renovated. Of course, it would be criminal to leave something like this to rot, but by the same token, sweeping away such an atmospheric place is also a shame. As such, I was glad I had the opportunity to see it.

 

Web site ruins

The second thing which happened recently was my realisation that after The Designers Republic folded, its online shop, thepeoplesbureau.com would also cease to be a going concern. I was always a fan of the site – it was a bold and characterful embodiment of the personality with which tDR carried themselves, and one of the few web sites with sound which didn't have me lurching for the 'mute' button.

 

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="580" caption="All that remains of thepeoplesbureau.com on archive.org"]All that remains of thepeoplesbureau.com on archive.org[/caption]

 

Thepeoplesbureau.com is no longer online, as there is no company to run it. A quick trip to the Wayback Machine (the internet archive project) reveals precious little. The site's reliance on a product stock database means that there is nothing more than a background graphic remaining. Even searching online reveals no screen grabs – there is barely any evidence that this vibrant and fun site ever existed.

 

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="283" caption="A call-to-action from thepeoplesbureau.com"]A call-to-action from thepeoplesbureau.com[/caption]

 

Unlike buildings, which slowly rot over time, web sites can completely disappear instantly, and without warning. This is a huge shame. Unless designers hand over the contents of their hard drives to the Design Museum, how are we to be able to look back over the development of this medium?

I love looking at things from the past – old books, objects, posters, etc. This all adds to my mental library, and gives me a broader well of inspiration to draw from when I work on my own projects, but how will designers of the future be able to look back on things which aren't being preserved?

Or am I being too precious here? Part of me wonders if classifying web sites in the same way as we would classify other areas of design is missing the point. Our experience of the internet is hugely reliant on context – where we are, what we are doing and who we are connected to. Would looking at a web site out of context be nothing more than staring at some meaningless images?

Should we then, look upon web sites in the same way as other transient cultural creations, such as theatre performances, rock concerts or art installations? Things which make an impression on people at the time, part of which is the knowledge that the experience will never be repeated? I'm not entirely sure, but I would have loved the opportunity to browse around Thepeoplesbureau, whether it had any stock or not, one more time, before it was virtually demolished.

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4 Comments

  • Zain | September 8, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Excellent article Dean. It’s funny – we live in a time that a lot of ancient Eastern philosophies teach: “Live in the Now”. The YouTube generation demands bitesized chunks, momentary and instant gratification. We are NOW. There is no past anymore. And so what becomes of our future?

    The online documents of our history vanish in a blink of an eye – disconnected and forgotten. But what then of 1984? “He who controls the present…?”

    Could this possibly be a good thing? Perhaps we can let the dead bury the dead, forgive the past sins, and instead construct a greater, more positive future based upon knowledge, learning and experience…… Read More

    Be creative. Construct. Build a better tomorrow. We have a choice of what our fate is to be, but it requires realisation, choice and the use of the will to act in a Certain Way.

    Have a nice day. Don’t let it blow your brains.

    Be Pure. Be Vigilante. Behave!

    PS: Thought I’d add this Facebook comment on your blog too…

  • tictoc | February 25, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Funny, I saw the design for the original BBC website (launched in 1997) the other day (on this blog, talking about a new visual language for the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2010/02/a_new_global_visual_language_f.html ) and couldn’t believe that it was so recent (surely that old logo hasn’t been in use since the 70s?!) – things have changed so fast over such a short time, that it makes me think that websites should definitely be preserved! I’m not sure whether a random approach should be taken (with a random selection of the web preserved), or whether we should take a more critical approach and choose which sites we want to preserve – however, the BBC would be a good starting place!

    If you think about all the information that we used to commit to paper, which had a small chance of surviving the years and being of some use to researchers in the future – and now we’re happy to see it disappear virtually!

    Although websites might be transient, they are also useful in terms of understanding the context.

    Kate at tictoc

  • Imran Ali | September 3, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    I’m becoming comfortable with the notion that perfect recall isn’t desirable or necessary…whether you believe in evolution or the soul, there must be a biological reason why our immense brain capacity doesn’t have perfect recall – we don’t need it. We remix, reinterpret and reimagine the past in order to navigate the future, even when we don’t have the “data”.

    “If we were able to save and recall absolutely everything, we have to remember that sometimes the past can be as stifling as it is informative” {http://blog.longnow.org/2010/03/29/the-case-for-forgetting/}

    “If you decide a sunset or a conversation is going to live only in your mind instead of on your hard drive, you’ll probably savor it more richly” {http://www.wired.com/techbiz/people/magazine/17-08/st_thompson}

    Not to say we shouldn’t actively archive culture or preserve and protect critical knowledge – but then again, humanity has made it so far without those capabilities 🙂