Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A new website with free birth-pangs

Our new website went online this week. And straightaway it didn't crash. But it does have some mighty creaks. We thought we'd put nine million pages online (that's 9,000,000). Turns out some four million have been displaced. We thought readers interested in a file which has yet to be scanned could simply click on a form and order it - well the blue button doesn't work. We were pretty convinced we knew how to update data in a hurry... yes, but the term "hurry" may need a bit of modification. And so on.

It pains us to say this, but not that long ago the rich and tech-savvy government of the United States launched a snazzy new website for heath insurance matters, and then spent three months fixing it in the full glare of world attention. At this stage, we still think we'll need days or two weeks, not months.

Of course, even once the website is stable it will be far form complete. We even put up a list of things we intend to improve over the coming months or a year. Getting this far has required collaboration of about 200 people at the archives and in a series of supporting technology firms; no-one's going home yet and we're all still working.

A local paper reported today that we're fumbling; this was then magnified by twitter and other channels. The report made two points. First, it told of a group of historians who are convinced that the need to work with scanned documents will seriously hamper their ability to ply their trade. We beg to disagree. The idea that archives, unlike all other parts of the modern world, must remain rooted in analog modes of communication and information processing, is an idea we don't accept; we also suggest that our users be patient with us for those two weeks and then pile onto us and see what happens. Who knows? Maybe we'll prove that it can be done, the migration to the 21st century.

The second complaint was that the ISA has suddenly subordinated itself to the censor, who will block lots of interesting information the public would like to see. This stems from a misunderstanding of our legal and also logistic situation.

Whether it's a good thing that Israel has a censor or not, is not a question for the archives to answer. The reality is that there is such an institution. Its writ does not reach more than 90% of what's in the archives; it does reach a small percentage which deals with information about some security issues. On those issues, the archives has been cooperating with the censor for years, because that's the law. What has abruptly changed is the size of the issue; by putting millions of pages online all at once, the number of files the censor needs to look at, by law, has also skyrocketed. Yet this is a one-off event. Once the censor works through the backlog, we'll go back to the previous mode of operation, which wasn't a problem then, and shouldn't be a problem now.

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