Online archives matter - it's only right to bring them into NLB fold

We can expect that Singapore's Smart Nation thrust will have a major impact on our lives, economic and social. Just how extensive that impact might be is well-illustrated by a Bill to amend the National Library Board Act. The draft Bill is aimed at capturing and preserving for posterity our online world.

Historical artefacts have tended to be ignored, if not discarded, in our headlong rush for progress. The proposed Bill is a catch-up: The Act was last amended in 1995, a year after the Internet was made available to the public. Many other countries - Britain and France in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan in the Asia-Pacific - have recognised the importance of the online world not just as a repository of information, but also of culture; and they have passed Bills that empower libraries to archive online material.

The proposed Bill will require electronic versions of digital materials such as e-books to be deposited with the National Library Board (NLB), empower the board to compulsorily archive websites registered under the .sg domain name, and afford restricted access to these materials.

Under the current regime, the board is required to seek the approval of the site before archiving it. The concern of site owners is that such material should not be made available in such a way as to breach copyright. A consequential amendment to the Copyright Act is therefore needed.

The protocol globally for online archives is that such materials will be made available through strict access control within the National Library's premises. Researchers viewing the archived websites on computer terminals will not be able to download, copy and print the archived content. Researchers can contact the content owners, who are usually the website creators or organisations, for permission to use the content.

The Bill will enable online material to be comprehensively collected and preserved. Without it, native digital material will be lost.

Archives serve the important function of keeping documents for future use. The precise use cannot be predicted.


Drones in a Merlion light display against the Marina Bay skyline at the National Day Parade held at The Float @ Marina Bay in August. Online archives for the National Day Parade would help Singaporeans to remember the event, and our identity, according to the writer, is tied up with our memories. TNP FILE PHOTO

For example, how important is it that one keeps the records for the running of a lighthouse? In the Singapore-Malaysia territorial dispute over Pedra Branca, those otherwise quotidian and mundane records proved critical to supporting Singapore's case as they showed how we had been operating it.

In research, an economist friend raved over being able to obtain the first Budget drawn up by the Singapore Government for his project comparing our national Budgets over the years.

Web pages have a short lifespan, averaging just 100 days. For important events such as the National Day Parade, the archived websites for the various years would show how the event has evolved over the years. Our identity is tied up with our memories. And so our archives inform us of our identity.

Just how important an archived document may be cannot be easily predicted. When Ukrainian separatists brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, the post with links to video footage of the wreckage was online for just two hours. It happened that the site had been marked as one to watch and so the post had been archived.

While some of us may regret having a silly photo or remark of or by us online, the reality is that webpages have a short lifespan, averaging just 100 days. For important events such as the National Day Parade, the archived websites for the various years would show how the event has evolved over the years. Our identity is tied up with our memories. And so our archives inform us of our identity.

The current consultation for the Bill is necessary to balance competing interests from publishers and content creators. The board had engaged these stakeholders earlier through focus group sessions even before the public consultation exercise conducted since mid-November by government feedback agency Reach.

The comments received touch on the security of and public access to deposited digital publications, clarification on the scope of archiving .sg websites, and on copyright/intellectual property rights to deposited content.

The Bill is a welcome addition to our laws. It brings digital archives within the purview of national depositories. The consultation period provides an opportunity for stakeholders to give their views.

In this regard, as a researcher, I would like to suggest that Singapore put forth more forward-looking policies and break away from the current norm of having very limited access. For example, online archives typically allow extremely limited access - only at dedicated terminals and no downloading or copying. The concern is over the dissemination of digital copies.

Perhaps indices and abstracts of the archives can be made available online to encourage greater use of the resource. This would be a small but significant step towards giving citizens and researchers greater access to our archives, and yet another step towards being a Smarter Nation.

• Ang Peng Hwa is a professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, where he teaches and researches Internet law and policy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2017, with the headline 'Online archives matter - it's only right to bring them into NLB fold'. Print Edition | Subscribe