Conceptual Digitisation

Filtering memory – SEO, newspaper archives, museum collections

When Bad News Follows You in the New York Times (via Nick Carr) is a fascinating article about what can happen when ‘everything’ is put online.

The article looks at the new array of problems that have come about as a by-product of the NYT optimising their site and archives for Google with SEO techniques. Suddenly stories that were either of minor significance, or were in later editions, corrected, are appearing toward the top of Google searches for names, places and events.

Most people who complain want the articles removed from the archive.

Until recently, The Times’s response has always been the same: There’s nothing we can do. Removing anything from the historical record would be, in the words of Craig Whitney, the assistant managing editor in charge of maintaining Times standards, “like airbrushing Trotsky out of the Kremlin picture.”

Whitney and other editors say they recognize that because the Internet has opened to the world material once available only from microfilm or musty clippings in the newspaper’s library, they have a new obligation to minimize harm.

But what can they do? The choices all seem fraught with pitfalls. You can’t accept someone’s word that an old article was wrong. What if that person who was charged with abusing a child really was guilty? Re-report every story challenged by someone? Impossible, said Jonathan Landman, the deputy managing editor in charge of the newsroom’s online operation: there’d be time for nothing else.


Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has a different answer to the problem: He thinks newspapers, including The Times, should program their archives to “forget” some information, just as humans do. Through the ages, humans have generally remembered the important stuff and forgotten the trivial, he said. The computer age has turned that upside down. Now, everything lasts forever, whether it is insignificant or important, ancient or recent, complete or overtaken by events.

Following Mayer-Schönberger’s logic, The Times could program some items, like news briefs, which generate a surprising number of the complaints, to expire, at least for wide public access, in a relatively short time. Articles of larger significance could be assigned longer lives, or last forever.

Mayer-Schönberger said his proposal is no different from what The Times used to do when it culled its clipping files of old items that no longer seemed useful. But what if something was thrown away that later turned out to be important? Meyer Berger, a legendary Times reporter, complained in the 1940s that files of Victorian-era murder cases had been tossed.

“That’s a risk you run,” Mayer-Schönberger said. “But we’ve dealt with that risk for eons.”

There are interesting parallels with our experience in making our online collection more usable and accessible. Public enquiries have skyrocketed and now range from the scholarly to the trivial – the greatest increase being in the latter category. Whilst there is a significant amount of extremely valuable piece of object related information sent in by members of the public, there are false leads and material that cannot be adequately verified, and more still that the Museum already knows but has not yet made available online. Managing public expectations and internal workflow is a difficult balancing act and a continuing challenge that many museums that not only put their collections online, but also make them highly accessible, are facing.