The Internet—it revolutionized the creation and dissemination of information. The sheer dominance of the internet in our daily lives means that so much content can be located online for free if the user knows where to look. While so much material is available online, law students occasionally run into a research problem where they need to locate a specific document or web page, but that item is no longer available on the website.
While various websites do archive older content, other websites do not maintain an archiving policy and simply may choose to replace an older version of a document with the newer version (i.e. a 2012 annual report may be replaced by the 2013 version of that report) or may opt to outright delete a particular page. This lack of archiving can prove extremely problematic when the researcher needs to access born-digital content—content which only ever existed online. This issue has very real implications for law students conducting research. Students may need to locate and read these materials for a variety of different reasons which includes: work performed for employers or clients; writing papers for classes or articles for law journals; and law journal cite-checking. Now if this content is no longer available on a particular website, what is a student to do?
Thankfully, all hope is not lost. A nonprofit entity known as the Internet Archive, among several other services, has “crawled” many websites over the past several years and maintains a searchable database, called the Wayback Machine, which lets users view a particular webpage as it existed at some specified previous point in time. Just paste the appropriate web address into the Wayback Machine’s search bar and it will list all the various dates on which that particular page was archived.
If you select one of the “blue circles,” for example February 15, 2012, you can view the website and its content as it looked on that particular date.
It is important to note that the Internet Archive does possess certain limitations. As you may have noticed from the above example, many websites are not archived on a daily basis and only may be archived on an inconsistent basis. Additionally, even when webpages are archived, not all content on that page may have been archived. Finally, as is the case with other online resources, the archive only extends so far back in time (in the above example, the earliest archive date was in 2007).
That being said, the Wayback Machine is an invaluable tool for attempting to retrieve online content which otherwise may have been lost. If you have questions or need help using the Wayback Machine or conducting any other research, you can stop by the Reference Desk and speak with one of our friendly, experienced law librarians or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.