British Library: web heritage in danger

Online archive needs to grow
Online archive needs to grow

The British Library, along with several other institutions, has warned that the UK's web heritage could vanish forever if it's not granted the "right to archive" – that is, to capture and keep sites.

In the last six years it's only managed to archive 6,000 sites, which are at the UK Web Archive ( and available to the public.

However, that figure is from an estimated total of eight million out there. All archiving currently needs the permission of the site owner. Research shows that the life expectancy of most sites is no more than 75 days, with 10 per cent of all British sites lost or replaced every six months.

The British Library is leading a consortium that also includes the National Library of Wales and the Wellcome Library, to lobby the government for clarification of the Legal Deposit Libraries Act. Under this, a copy of every print publication in the UK has to be deposited in the British Library, and it was extended to online material in 2003.

However, there's never been any clarification on how to achieve this. British Library Chief Executive, Dame Lynne Brindley said: "Limited by the existing legal position, at the current rate it will be feasible to collect just one per cent of all free UK websites by 2011."

She added that the archive was vital to "avoid the creation of a 'digital black hole' in the nation's memory."

Holding for the future

So far the project has archived web forums discussing the 2005 London bombings, sites of MPs who've died, and sites of companies that went under during the credit crunch.

"We can't make a judgement about what people in the future will find useful," said a British Library spokesman.

The Wayback Machine ( does offer a very wide-ranging web archive, and a few countries have begun to work on keeping their country's websites.