Tracing history with the Net

November 22, 2010 12:27 am | Updated May 27, 2011 04:19 pm IST

It is difficult to study/analyse a phenomenon without understanding its historical context. Net presents several means by which we can enrich our historical understanding. This edition of NetSpeak deals with this theme and introduces a tool that helps us visit old web pages with ease.

Historical reflections help us gain insights on almost every phenomenon one can think of — technological developments, development of economic systems, change in human values over time and so on.

Unlike in the past, thanks to the Net, doing historical research is no more a difficult task. Services meant for doing historical research on different subjects/themes are in place. >Smarthistory and >ITHistory are some such sites worth a visit.

The historical values of old movies are indisputable. Besides offering clues on the technological changes, these movies take us back in time to comprehend changes in a society's speech structure/story themes/values and the like.

Many of these old movies are now in public domain, available at various on-line archives ( > ) for free viewing/ download.

>Critical Past , the video archival service that hosts tens of thousands of historic video clippings, is yet another wonderful resource for retrospection.

Yet another innovative service worth a mention in this context is >HistoryPin , which attempts to collaboratively recreate the digital history of the world. The service allows netizens across the globe to upload images (of old street surroundings) and pin them on the corresponding current street locations on the Google maps imagery with necessary comments. Once the service is populated with sufficient content, it might help us compare the current surroundings of our favourite streets with that of its past. In addition, the HistoryPin's promoters offer some ideas that might help the teaching community ( > ).

Historical routes

Like any other phenomena, Web also has its historical roots. A few years ago, most of the web sites, even the ones from big companies, were just a pack of static plain HTML pages with a couple of graphics interspersed here and there. From that stage the evolution of the Web is undoubtedly phenomenal.

With the aid of fast changing web technologies, web masters modify the design and appearance of their sites endlessly. It is always fun to compare how your favourite site looks now as against the same a few years ago. Going back to past web pages of your favourite web site is not only amusing but it could be enlightening as well. Accessing previous versions of a web page would provide us insights regarding the changes in Web technologies. This could also provide you an opportunity to discover the humble past of a high-profile web site.

As mentioned in these columns long ago ( > The Hindu dated November 22, 2001 ), web archival services such as Wayback machine help us access old web pages with ease. To access via Wayback machine, you just need to enter its URL on the service's input box. In response to your request, the service presents a list of links to older versions of the page being queried.

Of course, Wayback machine is not the lone source from where one can find past versions of a web page. Sites such as Wikipedia automatically keep the older versions of each of its pages. For instance, if you wish to visit the old version of a Wikipedia page, you just need to click on its ‘View History' button.

Now, if you wish to retrieve the old version of a web site at a specific moment in time, you have to go to an online archive and enter its web address. Here is a better and elegant solution — the Firefox extension provided by >Memento .

Once installed, the extension places a date-slider that can be used to select a specific date to view the current page in its past shape. To access an old version of the current page, just set the target date and the extension will in turn fetch the relevant copy of the web page from an appropriate web archive.

Also, if this past web page, retrieved from an archive, has got a link, memento will try to make sure that you access the older version of this link (instead of its current version), subject to its availability. If you wish to know how Memento does this, view this video recording of the presentation available at: > .

He can be contacted at >

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