This post was written by Katie Cuyler, Librarian (Arts & Law) & Government Information Librarian
Today, governments share almost all of their public information on their websites. But, what happens when these websites change? When policies, mandates, or governments change? How can researchers access government information from previous governments? The answer is often through the Wayback Machine and Archive-it.
Archive-it and the Wayback Machine are invaluable tools when it comes to accessing government information and many libraries and other institutions are working hard to ensure valuable information is captured and preserved.
The government is often a reliable source of information. This information can range from demographic statistics, public health data, and curriculums, to research reports, environmental studies, and so much more. The breadth of content and usefulness of government information is vast. Not to mention the importance of long term access to government policy, financials, and audits in order to facilitate the public’s ability to ask questions of their governments and to hold them accountable for decisions made.
The Wayback Machine allows anyone online access to archived websites at particular points in time. Users can navigate through these sites as they could have at the point that they were archived. All one needs to do is to type a URL into the Wayback Machine and they will find a calendar of all the archived versions of that site to explore. For government information, this is particularly valuable as government websites are often currently the only source of information, and these websites are constantly changing.
Many people may assume that the web is automatically crawled by a program on regular intervals, and that’s how it is captured. In reality, many people are working behind the scenes to ensure this content is preserved and accessible. Web archiving is done for so much more than just government websites, but for government information in Canada, it’s currently one of the only ways this content is being preserved.
Archive-It Member institutions, including the University of Alberta Library (UAL), use their accounts to crawl specific sites and to ensure that they’re made publicly accessible. For government websites, UAL strives to crawl all Albertan provincial government websites twice a year or more, and many Alberta municipalities’ websites as well. UAL is also a member of the Canadian Government Information Digital Preservation Network (CGI-DPN), which works to archive Government of Canada web content and to coordinate the preservation of provincial and territorial content across the country.
The websites archived by UAL and CGI-DPN are available on the Wayback Machine as well as through another platform called, Archive-It. The Archive-it platform includes additional descriptive information to help researchers find what they are looking for, particularly if they don’t know the URL for the archived site they’re looking for. The descriptive data and metadata included in collections on the Archive-It platform has been created by people at the institution that created the collection, and is designed to help researchers find what they’re looking for.
For libraries, like UAL and many others, preserving and providing access to government information is not a new priority. In Canada, federal and provincial governments distributed their publications to libraries through depository service programs. These programs required participating libraries to collect a predetermined selection of publications and to make them accessible to the public. With the expansion of online content, most depository programs ceased to exist in the 2010s. To ensure that government information remains accessible, many libraries (including UAL!) began using web archiving to continue to preserve government information.
The information and publications on government websites has been created with public money and is intended to be shared with the public. However, the nature of the web means information that was once preserved in print in libraries could be lost. Web archiving preserves these sites and ensures they remain accessible.
Researchers may use these web archives to track policies across multiple governments, to find in-depth information on now defunct government bodies or initiatives, or often just to access specific publications, data, or statistics that are no longer posted. Another very common use for the Wayback Machine, is to locate documents or websites found in research citations that are now broken. Often simply pasting these old URLs into the Wayback Machine can locate the original content.
Next time you’re researching the government, our society, or so much more, be sure to use the Wayback Machine or explore Archive-It’s many collections!