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David KirschFollowing is an interview with Dr. David Kirsch, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Kirsch is on a mission to rescue and preserve data from the very recent past while that data is still fresh and available, before it slips away. History can take it from there.

The Whole Iceberg

David Kirsch is an ardent business historian and chronicler of technological innovation. He is especially passionate about preserving digital archives of the dot-com era, which he describes as "one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of capitalism, the explosion of Internet technology companies in the 1990s." It is a fascinating period so fresh and recent that it will take years to sort through, gain perspective and understand. But he's trying.

"Many hundreds of years from now people will still be interested in what happened during that time," says David. "But people in the future need to have some stuff to interpret. They need to have the records of those businesses . . . whether it's a business plan . . . or the legal records . . . or the personal experiences of the employees who helped write the code and build these companies and sell their products and design the Web pages. If we don't save those kinds of materials we'll have this sort of black hole in our cultural memory."

His herculean work chronicling the history of the dot-com era and developing the online Business Plan Archive and Dot Com Archive (see news article "The Birth of the Dot-Com Era") has turned up – among other things – some fascinating evidence that contradicts many widely accepted beliefs. For example, in the wake of the dot-com bust, most of us generally assume that the majority of dot-com businesses died painful deaths or fared equally poorly. But David has demonstrated that, based on his analysis of business planning documents spanning from 1998 to 2002, approximately half of those companies survived and are still in business.

Regarding the illusion of massive dot-com failure, he uses the iceberg metaphor, with a small portion of the iceberg poking above water. This is analogous to the relatively small number of companies that had high visibility in the late '90s and were consistently featured by the business press during the boom. Thus their troubles as well as their fortunes were also highly visible and thoroughly reported.

But what about the huge mass of companies "below the water line" that got little or no media exposure? Apparently, thanks to David's research and conclusions, many of them did just fine, adhering to prudent business strategies, and they now serve as solid examples of good business practice. Today we just accept how thoroughly Internet-based businesses are integrated into our lives.

"If we think about this period in the late 1990s and this remarkable period known as the dot-com era," he says, "we think about all the changes in society that were brought about by the spread of the Internet and the thousands – tens of thousands – of companies that were created . . . really a flourishing of technological entrepreneurship . . ..We've been very fortunate to live in interesting times. We take a lot of those memories for granted."

David is trying to capture not only the business plans and legal records (more on that in a moment) from that era, but the memories of the people involved in the dot-com phenomena. He created the online Dot Com Archive as a place where people can record their experiences.

He does not think that he has written "the last word" on the Internet revolution by any stretch. His work involves saving the data and offering some historical interpretation. "History has to start somewhere," David says. "It all starts with the evidence, which is what's so crucial about digital preservation: making sure that the evidence persists. Otherwise it's one scholar arguing with another scholar . . . or just speaking past each other.

"We need to leave archival traces behind to all allow future scholars to interpret them. I've offered one interpretation, and future scholars will probably revise my interpretation. Revision is the process of history. They'll reinterpret my data just as we have revised and reinterpreted other past data."

Legal Records and the Brobeck Closed Archives

But saving electronic records is a new concept and practice for many, especially in the legal profession, and the rules and procedures are being newly invented. Naturally this creates some societal growing pains. Consider the example of the Brobeck Closed Archive.

Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison was one of San Francisco's largest and prestigious law firms. Its prominence grew considerably during the 1990s as it handled hundreds of high-profile dot-com initial public offerings and mergers. But in 2003, in the wake of the dot-com bust, the law firm collapsed.

David Kirsch and others realized that, as he put it, "the artifacts left in the wake of Brobeck – including digital materials documenting the operation of the partnership and the work its lawyers did on behalf of more than 10,000 clients – contained a wealth of historical information." Brobeck's digital records needed to be saved and curated. So David and others created the Brobeck Closed Archive with the help of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. Access to the data in this closed archive (a secure digital repository sometimes referred to as a "dark archive") is heavily restricted. In August 2006 a California bankruptcy judge officially authorized the work of the Brobeck Closed Archive (see news article "The Birth of the Dot-Com Era"). "Part of the reason records may not have survived in the past was that it was expensive," David points out. "Brobeck ran to 200,000 boxes of paper. That same amount can be stored on a couple of boxes of digital tape.

"It cost $30,000 per month to preserve those 200,000 boxes. If it takes 50 years before people can use the material, that amounts to about $20 million just to save the paper. It's just cheaper to save digital than paper."

Despite the Brobeck Closed Archive's security and restricted access, and the archives managers' sensitivity to client confidentiality, some bloggers expressed outrage and paranoia at the implications of such an archive. David addressed their concerns, advising them that the archival work needed to be done now because digital records disappear quickly. He wrote, "If no action is taken to preserve these records, they will be lost to history forever. Unlike copies of paper records that can sit in a basement or attic for decades, digital records need to be continually cared for. These records may offer future scholars – and through them, the general public – an unparalleled window into the events that shaped the business culture of the day. Even if research access to these records is decades away, preservation demands intervention now."

In other words, if you don't preserve the records now, when the conditions for access are finally worked out there may be nothing left to access.

Judging from online reactions of many of the Archives' critics, the extensive documentation on the Brobeck Closed Archive site calmed their fears. Still, the idea of digital preservation of legal records is so new, David says, that when he speaks about it before professional groups, "it meets with a lot of wide-eyed stares from folks who are steeped in legal record keeping. The professionals are interested though and satisfied once you explain the preservation procedure, the opt-in procedure and so forth."

They have to develop trust in this archive, and in the emerging frontier of digital preservation itself. David says, "Trust is built on a set of repeated interactions, but if we've never done it before, how can we trust it? There's no track record, no history."

Opportunity and Shared Responsibility for Everyone

When it comes to digital preservation for the masses, not just for institutions, David radiates the optimism of the entrepreneur. He says, "It's very tempting to look around and see the threat, because it is very clear we know all the things that we're not saving. Every time that someone passes away and their family goes and cleans out their belongings and takes that old computer and just sells it for scrap down at the second-hand store without downloading all the stuff that was on that machine and knowing how to make sense of it, we lose something.

"What is perhaps harder to connect to sometimes are the opportunity and the sense that part of what we have now is the chance to live in a much more documented and well-preserved environment. So, we have the opportunity to go back and search our e-mails. We can save our Internet messenger logs . . .. We can do things in this setting that we could not do in the paper era. And that's the piece that sometimes gets lost, that we have this opportunity in front of us to also save new kinds of things."

When David says "we" he really does mean all of us, that digital preservation is everyone's responsibility. "There's no way that any one institution can be responsible for this entire burden of digital stuff," he says. "It's not just the responsibility of the Library of Congress or the National Archives, but everyone: local libraries and antiquarian collectors and people at home saving things in their attics and basements, sometimes more or less successfully. We need the same range of participants in the digital equivalent process but we also need to recognize that we need new tools to do that.

"It's an individual responsibility. You and I are producing digital artifacts. So in some sense it's our responsibility to identify the ones that matter to us. The e-mail that says 'let's meet for lunch' is not as important as perhaps the one from your niece or a family member, or something that marks a momentous occasion.

"Or a digital photograph: You want to save that; I want to save it. I'd like to know how to save it. Part of the reason that I'm very excited to be involved with the Library in these activities is together we are developing the tools, the context and the infrastructure to allow me to succeed in saving the things that I care about."

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