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Web 'Time Travel' Work of ODU's Nelson Is Gaining Attention

Michael Nelson

The digital preservation work of Old Dominion University computer scientist Michael Nelson is featured in a report this week on the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Old Dominion U. Researchers Ask How Much of the Web Is Archived" is the headline of the article, which explains a recent phase of work that Nelson and colleagues have been doing for several years.

Nelson, an associate professor in ODU's Department of Computer Science, and Herbert Van de Sompel and Robert Sanderson, computer scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), are the lead investigators of the Memento project. The research team also includes Scott Ainsworth, an ODU graduate student.

The Memento architecture has been called "time travel for the Web." Its development has been supported by the Library of Congress under the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program.

Last year, Memento won the Digital Preservation Award from the Institute for Conservation and Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) based in London.

Related to the project, the research team wants to find out how much of the public Web is archived and where it is stored. So far, according to Nelson, the researchers have found that popular sources such as URIs from delicious.com or dmoz.org are 68 percent to 79 percent archived. New or less popular sources such as bit.ly or search engine results from interior pages are 16 percent to 19 percent archived.

These preliminary findings were reported in a paper presented at the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries of the Association for Computing Machinery and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers held last month in Ottawa.

Memento provides an easily deployed method to reunite Web archives with their home on the live web. This can open the archives to millions of new users.

Although the ability to change and update pages is one of the Web's greatest advantages, this creates a here-today, gone-tomorrow shortcoming. Services like the Internet Archive have provided a stable but partial memory of a fragment of the Web, but users had no way of linking between current content and earlier versions held by archives. Memento resolves this by letting users set a time preference in their browsers

Nelson said he and his colleagues believe what differentiates Memento from other preservation projects is that it is an amplifying technology - it helps to better integrate existing archives instead of the current situation where archives essentially compete against each other.

"Much like Amazon did with books and music, we're interested in exploring the 'long tail' of archives by providing a framework for inter-archive access. There are many small Web archives, but collectively their holdings can form a formidable resource. When combined with large, well-known archives like the Wayback Machine, we come close to having a history button for the Web," Nelson said in an interview last year.

As quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nelson sees his latest work as another step toward creating a browsing experience that links the past to the present, where users can replay events as they unfolded, such as media coverage of Hurricane Katrina or the shootings of the Virginia Tech campus. "You relive the experience in a way that a summary page can't even begin to capture," he told The Chronicle.

Ainsworth compared saving old Web pages to the historical preservation of old Sears and Roebuck catalogs. "You never know what's going to be important in 100 or 150 years."

This article was posted on: July 8, 2011

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