Ghosts of old federal Web sites still lurking around

Did you ever wonder where agency Web sites go when they die? The Cyber Cemetery, of course. The University of North Texas Libraries created the virtual cemetery in 1997 to house the Web pages of defunct agencies for use by researchers and public officials. The university is the final resting place for such bygone organizations as the National Bankruptcy Review Commission, the U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, the first tenant to take up eternal residence in 1997. At the Cyber Cemetery, visitors can browse the pages of the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, which went down for the big sleep in December 1997 after telling Congress that unless it gave the Federal Aviation Administration billions of dollars in special funding, the nation's skies would turn into the equivalent of the Los Angeles freeways at rush hour. Like thousands of pilgrims paying homage to the grave of Jim Morrison in Paris, graduate students, scholars and government officials from around the world have visited the site to gather data, read white papers and learn more about the way some agencies used to operate, said Cathy Hartman, head of government documents for University of North Texas Libraries. Hartman's library is also a federal depository library, responsible for housing millions of old federal documents. She said government officials from as far as South Korea have visited the federal graveyard. The university's program is similar to the effort undertaken by the National Archives and Records Administration in January to store for posterity all the federal Web pages that were online during the Clinton administration. Hartman is familiar with the NARA effort, but notes that the university's mission differs in that it aims to give patrons immediate access to whatever information they're looking for, whereas a search of the National Archives could take several days. "Our focus…is permanent public access," she said. The most recent addition to the cyber cemetery serves as a stark reminder of just how quickly major government initiatives can be forgotten. Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a crusade for better management and accountability in government, closed shop in January 2001, just after Gore left town. In May, former employees of the organization archived the site and shipped the pages off to Hartman. It now resides there in the same condition as when it was active. Hartman has become known in federal circles for her work. A sort of agency mortician, she said officials frequently call on her when it's time to put a Web site out to pasture. But the library's work is really no different from what libraries have done for thousands of years, Hartman said. Libraries are always looking for opportunities to provide future generations of scholars with access to the past through its documents, and they're interested in these types of government archiving opportunities because it fits with that mission, she said. "That's what federal depository libraries have always done," she said.
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