How we share information and spread knowledge has changed drastically from when the Smithsonian Institution unveiled its first homepage in May 1995. The official debut of "America's Treasure House for Learning" took place in House Speaker Newt Gingrich's office with Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman on Capitol Hill. The site linked to video, images, pages, maps and audio clips from across the Institution. Other Smithsonian homepages went online as well.
Secretary Heyman reported in his annual statement for 1995 that as of September 30, the site had more than 8.5 million visits. To put this in perspective, Smithsonian websites combined had more than 99 million visits in fiscal year 2014.
Prior to this the National Museum of Natural History was using Gopher technology in 1993 on the Internet. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory also launched its Telescope Data Center website in 1993, which was one of the first 250 websites on the Internet and is still active today.
While the Archives has been preserving Smithsonian websites since the late 1990s, we do not have the electronic files preserved from this first Smithsonian homepage. Multiple attempts to retrieve files off a data tape have been unsuccessful. We do have the press kit, a printout of the top part of the site, and other related files. We continue to hope someone out there might have another copy of the digital files from 1995.
The earliest captures of the homepage at the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive only go back to 1997 and are missing some items.
Anyone who has done complex searches on the web knows they can be challenging, especially with digital information that is nearly 20 years old. Using a standard search engine does not always deliver the desired results.
This is where Memento comes in. With funding from the Library and Congress and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, it was developed by Los Alamos National Laboratory and Old Dominion University. Dubbed as "Time Travel for the Web," the Chrome extension works by supplying the URI (uniform resource identifier of a web resource) and selecting a date in the past that it may have been on the web. I entered www.si.edu in my browser and selected "get neared save date" of January 1, 1996, (the earliest available with the plugin) and found a web capture from the Portuguese Web Archive. This display of the homepage from October 13, 1996, has more details than what was found previously, as these results did not display from regular queries to search engines. I also recently found that Indiana University has a capture as well.
Memento uses a protocol to search archived websites from the Internet Archive, Archive-It (where you can find archived Smithsonian websites), the UK Web Archive, the Icelandic Archive, and other sites. It also works with Wikipedia, and other tools are being developed. Obviously, it only works if the website was captured in the past and available on a server.
It is rewarding to see a few more pieces come together from the early days of the web and the Smithsonian's role in it.
- Home Page of the Smithsonian's First Website, Historic Images of the Smithsonian, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Web Archiving Update, October 2014, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Institution websites, Archive-It