The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is a godsend to law librarianship. My undergraduate professors would be slowly shaking their wizened heads at me for starting a piece of writing with a “universal superlative,” but, count literary composition as just another thing the internet has changed forever. As transient and mutable as the internet is, however, it does a bafflingly horrible job of preserving its own history. How the internet handles its past is actually terrifying: content disappears as if it never existed, dead links accumulate, and information is continually extinguished — overwritten in 1s and 0s in remote, humming server farms. Making a personal logical leap to questioning what this suggests about our own, personal histories is inevitable, but, rather than tread down the depressing path of existentialism, let’s jump back to how great the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is, and how it can be a feather in the cap of any law librarian. Jill Lepore, writing for the New Yorker, chronicled the origin story of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and its founder Brewster Kahle. This feature is fascinating, touching on the development of the internet, how foreign countries archive websites, the implications of U.S. Copyright Law on digital archiving, and–similar to what we law librarians sometimes have to do–how to prove the existence of deleted web sites and posts. Lepore’s article is structured around a story involving a quickly deleted post made by a Ukranian separatist leader; this leader boasted about (and included a video of) downing a Malaysian passenger airplane, resulting in the death of 298 people. Again, the post was quickly removed from the site where it was posted; but instead of it being lost forever, archived versions of the post were made and retained in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Turns out archiving the past can be a really important thing to do. My day-to-day job does not generally entail proving the existence of evidence that implicates someone/some group of mass homicide, however, the Wayback Machine has come to the rescue for a number of research requests that have hit my inbox. Looking through my closed reference requests, here are some of the ways I have used the Wayback Machine:
- Searching old company press releases
- Cite-checking now dead links
- Pulling historical editions of a government document
- Confirming employment of individuals via old corporation sites
- West Virginia Pattern Jury Instructions
- Locating historical weather information
The interface is very easy to use–merely type in the address of the site you wish to find historical versions of: If the site is archived, your results will include a timeline of captures. Clicking on the different captures enables you to access various incarnations of the site–for example, if you wished to access 2009 or 2010 captures of our iBraryGuy site, you would be able to do so by clicking into the year columns below (the vertical bars signal when, in the year, the captures were made): Clicking into a year column leads to a calendar view, where you can choose the specific date of the capture: After clicking the date, the capture will load. For example, here’s how the iBraryGuy website looked on January 16th, 2010: To be noted, the captures themselves are not always complete–some pictures will load and some will not have been captured. Also, dynamic sites (those coded with queries to an underlying database or host, and with forms) will often lack some functionality. For further information regarding what is and isn’t captured and why, the Wayback Machine’s FAQ is a great resource. Enjoy reliving the past!