What is happening to our digital archives?

Last week, I spoke to someone about this project. I'm now, probably 40+ hours into interviewing, and it's only the second time this topic came up in conversation: archiving.

History is important in typography and type design. Type revivals and reinterpretations are only made possible by the artefacts that remain from their initial use. Ephemeral in nature, most type specimens that remain from centuries past are parts of collections. Collectables are cared for, catalogued, preserved. Working documents – specimens pored over, first by compositors or printers, but then by academics and students – degrade with age. But that's ok. These are tools. Working specimens. That's ok in real life. In the physical world. But what about the digital world? What about digital specimens?

I've spent some time with digital archeology of sorts when I worked with CERN. First on helping them restore the first web site, and tell the story about its retrieval and redeployment on one of the World Wide Web's first URLs. I was part of a team who worked on recreating the Line Mode Browser, and some years later, the NeXT browser. Both of those projects brought the topic of digital preservation into sharp focus.

One of the problems with archiving digital specimens is the technology used to make them, and the platforms – the browsers and devices – on which they are intended to be used. It all moves so fast! New frameworks and technologies spring up to try and cope with the speed of change. More and more ways to build and release things faster and cheaper becomes the norm. And, the more this happens, the more we deviate from standards: good ol' HTML and CSS.

Last year, when my team mates and I were sat in a room trying to get our heads around how to recreate the NeXT browser, there was a moment where we crowded around the NeXT box we had in our little war room to see a modern website rendered in the original browser. The sites that worked were those that were built - and are still built – upon the single, rock-solid foundation of the modern web: HTML. I thought of this moment last week when I was discussing archiving.

Digital specimens are ephemeral. Like most websites. From the moment they are released they are rotting as technology – and user expectation – swiftly marches on. Unless we spend time maintaining them, they represent moments in time. A snapshot. Sure, the Internet Archive does a pretty good job of capturing some, but by focussing on standards-based design, it means that we build things that are inherently faster, more compatible, easier to maintain, all that stuff we know. But it also means that what we make will stay usable for longer. Let's focus on building something that will last, so that future generations of designers and type designers might benefit. And, for the purposes of this project, when I start the process of designing reusable components to easily build digital specimens, I'll be focussing on that foundation. On simple, clear, easy to use HTML and CSS. And nothing more.