When I first started working for the online Monitor in 1996, finding links for websites relevant to breaking news stories, I was using a hand-me-down computer that looked like this, running an operating system that looked like this, while surfing - over a 28.8K dial-up connection - through websites that looked like this. Ten years later, I'm using one of these, running this operating system, and using a cable modem to surf sites that, after a few seconds of download time, can look like this. The reason for this quick glimpse into my research milieu of the past decade? Well, after a little more than 350 website reviews over eight of the last ten years, my time at csmonitor.com is about to end, and looking back at some of those sites makes for an illuminating exercise.
Oddly enough, the feature that struck me first as I looked back to the beginning of the personal archives wasn't any significant trend in design or interactivity, or even the Web's phenomenal growth - from less than 400,000 sites in 1996 to more than 92 million today - but the ephemeral nature of the exercise as a whole. (This phenomenon won't come as a surprise to anyone who does a lot of surfing, but the attrition rate can be impressive when you try revisiting some of the dustier corners of your Bookmarks / Favorites collection.) Of the first 15 sites that were reviewed in this space, more than half have ceased to exist, while others, like the Theban Mapping Project, have undergone significant additions and upgrades, and only a few, like Private Art, still look much as they did when they were first reviewed. (And perhaps even more to its credit than its longevity as a privately-maintained site, Private Art doesn't look even remotely dated. It was well designed for its role in 1997, and while there have been updates over the years, there has never been the need for a wholesale reconstruction.)
But given the impermanence of the medium, it's difficult to escape the irony that the Web is also responsible for reconnecting a fascinated audience with more materials long lost from public view than all previous forms of communication combined - from Historical Maps, to Olympics Posters, to recipes with a bit of history. Even many of those vanished websites can be visited again through the Internet Archive, which also holds tens of thousands of texts, Spoken Word and Live Music audio files, and the famous Moving Images archive - offering everything from vintage television ads, social hygiene films and Cold War propaganda, to such Holywood classics as "My Man Godfrey" and "His Girl Friday." Thousands, if not tens of thousands of other sites devote themselves to preserving lost ages of, "culture," travel, oral traditions, and even vintage radio broadcasts that would likely never have been heard again without the Web. (And without my personal radio favorite, I wouldn't be able to catch such pre-Monty Python classics as "The Goon Show" and "I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again.")
Which brings us to the overriding theme that links all these sites together, even the missing ones. The theme of the Web itself, and the reason that it's changed our world, is access - to places, to people, to ... well ... things. Through the Web, we can instantly visit cities around the world - at street level, or if you prefer, from above (and in many cases, live). …