Ever wonder where federal websites go when they die?
To a cyber cemetery, naturally. (Yes, there really are such
The digital CyberCemetery within the University of North Texas
Libraries serves as a permanent public archive that provides access to
websites of defunct U.S. federal government agencies, usually after they issue
their final report. The cemetery - let's just say "archive," shall we? -
provides an excellent tool for researchers and others curious about the
workings of government past and present.
Documents and other web records of bygone federal government
agencies and commissions live on in the CyberCemetery, which can be browsed by
agency name or searched. The websites of available agencies and commissions are
reproduced in full, complete with internal pages and links.
The first steps toward an archive of decommissioned federal
agencies began in 1997 during discussions between UNT Libraries and the U.S. Government Printing Office and included the
complete preservation of the website of the U.S. Advisory Commission on
Intergovernmental Relations. This particular commission was chosen for trial
archiving due to its at-risk status and its static content, which would keep
the costs of preservation low, according to Starr Hoffman, head of the
Government Documents Department at the University of North Texas
Hoffman has taught training classes to government workers -
primarily researchers for the Congressional Research Service at the Library of
Congress - that covered the
"development and background of CyberCemetery, showed highlights of the content,
and gave sample searches showing how to find information," she said.
Early discussions about an archive took place back in1995
after the GPO published its strategic plan, which emphasized a need for federal
agencies to save their born-digital content. The GPO was concerned about both
information published only on the web, with no print version, and the full
websites themselves, especially for temporary Commissions that would be
dissolved. Also included in GPO's plan was the immediate formulation of a
partnership between UNT Libraries and the GPO, expanded to include the National Archives and Records Administration
(NARA) in 2006, as part of the Federal
Library Depository Program.
In 1999 the original 1997 agreement concerning the
formulation and scope of the website archive was expanded to include "all
defunct federal agency websites," and was renamed CyberCemetery.
According to Hoffman, one of the primary uses of
CyberCemetery is as a historic record of agencies and commissions that no
longer operate. One of the most popular archives in the CyberCemetery is the
website of the 9/11 Commission, officially known as the National Commission on
Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission's entire report
on the 9/11 attacks is available as a free, downloadable PDF, and is the most
downloaded file on the entire site, according to Hoffman. The archive also
contains video and audio recordings from Commission hearings, "a rich source of primary information on the events
and aftermath of September 11, 2001," said Hoffman.
Other archives of note in the CyberCemetery are those of the
space shuttle Columbia Accident Investigation Board from 2003, the National
Bioethics Advisory Commission from 2001, and the United States Information
Agency, which is archived by the University of Illinois at Chicago.
You don't have to be a professional government researcher to
benefit from these online archives. Anyone doing a paper on the Child Online
Protection Act of 2000 would certainly have interest in the COPA Commission's
website, which the Act established, but since that website no longer exists, without
CyberCemetery, there would be no easy way to access the information once
available on the Commission's website.
Searching the archive is simple: either browse by agency
name or retirement date, or enter search terms at the CyberCemetery site. Web users
can also access the archive via the USA.gov
search engine, the Google U.S.
Government Search, or NARA's website.
The list of roughly 50 websites archived in the CyberCemetery hints at
the massive task the federal government faces in preserving and keeping
accessible all of the non-classified .gov and .mil websites. Links from the North
Texas Libraries site point to other web archives such as the 2004 Presidential Term Web
Harvest operated by the National Archives, the Clinton White House
websites run by the Clinton Presidential Library and other collections by the Univ. of
Illinois at Chicago.