As the Bush administration and new Congress move into the Capitol, they'll also be taking over the federal Web, casting aside the content that appeared at sites such as Whitehouse.gov in favor of fresh, updated pages.
In early January, links to older Congresses were stripped off the front page that now belongs to the 107th Congress. And Whitehouse.gov, currently the domain of Bill Clinton, will be turned over to George W., Laura, and the twins Jan. 20 when the new president takes office.
What's a cyberhistorian to do? Relax. Most old federal Web sites don't really disappear--they just move to different servers.
Several federal offices are jumping in to make sure the sites aren't gone forever, archiving snapshots of the Web pages as they looked on their final days. The National Archives soon will house the official Web site of the Clinton presidency at Clinton.nara.gov.
The Library of Congress is in charge of keeping old congressional Web pages intact. Congressional content won't move to a different site, but instead will stay on the back pages of Thomas, Congress' Web site. "Since we are a library, we keep everything," said Maryle Ashley, who oversees the development of Thomas. "It never really goes away."
Ashley already has learned that she must tread carefully when it comes to preserving older materials. When the 107th Congress first took office, she changed the front page and removed references to the 106th and 105th Congresses.
But after a barrage of angry emails from people looking for information on bills passed recently by the 106th, she added a link at the top of the page. The 107th Congress will get top billing again once it does something, she said.
A less-structured archiving environment
As the first Internet generation of politicians leaves office, the federal government seems to be making Web archives a priority--much to the delight of historians and political junkies, who've gotten used to researching the antics of current politicians using only a keyboard and mouse.
"It's not only important that it be archived, but that it be archived in a public way," said Steven Clift, editor of the Democracies Online newswire, who's also starting a forum where citizens can discuss the features they'd like to see on the new Whitehouse.gov. "There should never be another administration that cannot be fully studied from everyone's home."
Most other defunct government Web sites are archived through a project by the General Printing Office (GPO), an arm of the legislative branch that historically has had the function of storing government documents in their original form.
The GPO was originally charged with all of Congress' printing duties. When a work order came in, GPO workers would print extra copies to archive. Because official documents had to go through the office, they were all logged and stored.
However, agencies don't need to print to put up a Web site, so the GPO is sometimes left out of the loop. "When an agency decides to put up a Web site, they don't have to come for us," Barnum said. "They don't have to tell anyone. It's a much less structured environment."
Now the office relies on reports and word of mouth to snatch up the content from dying Web sites and ship the pages to its repositories--libraries across the country that have agreed to maintain the material electronically in exchange for making it publicly available.
Barnum said the GPO is scrambling to stay on top of withering Web sites, and he expects the pace to quicken once Bush takes office and the new Congress weeds out some agencies.
"We will be picking up; we have an eye out for offices that will be going out as a result of the transition," he said.
In addition to Whitehouse.gov, some of the sites potentially on the chopping block include Vice President Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government and one of the independent counsel pages.
Barnum said future historians will thank government workers who paid attention to archiving Web sites. After all, saving the content will allow Internet researchers to compare politicians' past promises with their current votes, track reports on health care and social security, or even reread the Starr report--all without leaving their computers.
"Who benefits? The nation as a whole, I think," Barnum said. "The premise is that the more government information that's available, the better democracy runs."