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Inside the Wayback Machine with George Oates

George OatesThere’s no denying that the Wayback Machine — an archive of the web from across the last 15 years — is an incredible resource: it’s got millions of pages stretching back into the distant past (“distant” in web terms, anyway) and is used by roughly 400,000 people each day.

But over the last few years, it’s looked increasingly like an archive piece itself.

While there’s nothing wrong with a classic, unchanging design (just look at Craigslist), in truth, it has made the archive harder to navigate as the amount of data inside it balloons. So perhaps it wasn’t entirely a surprise when the Internet Archive — the San Francisco non-profit that runs the service — announced that it was testing a beta version of a new look at

The new design — which is simpler and presents information in a more visually appealing way — has started getting some momentum, with nods from the likes of BoingBoing.

So I grabbed the Archive’s George Oates, who led the redesign, for a quick chat to explain how and why it made the change.

George is a well-respected designer and increasingly a go-to expert on digital archives: as one of the very first employees at Flickr, she led the photo site’s Commons project before joining the Internet Archive a couple of years ago to head up its Open Library service. She’s also recently been named a research associate at the Smithsonian.

So why do it?

“Well, why not?” she says. “It’s a very old, well-loved website — and I was struck that hardly anyone realized it comes out of the Internet Archive. Coming in with fresh eyes, I felt it would be interesting and useful to improve on how this massive architecture is presented, to increase utility for the already large user base.”

She suggests the old style was becoming ungainly.

“The old layout was starting to burst its banks. It’s difficult to read the long text list of updates, and one day it struck me that if you just rotate that page 90 degrees and shrink it, it looks just like a graph of crawls over time — so I applied that idea across the redesign.”

In terms of coping with the vast amount of data, it’s true that the new look opens things up. There are, for example, more than 1,500 captures of alone — from the very first days of Om’s personal blog to the network we see today. That’s a lot of information to cope with as a viewer.

The new look certainly makes the system more navigable, but some might argue that it steps away from the original in quite a radical way.

Oates disagrees: “Even though the visual design is quite a departure from the original look, I’d still claim that this new beta version is more like a ‘realignment’ rather than a redesign,” she says. “I was careful not to introduce new functionality — or at least not too much — but focus on representing the wealth of data in a more interesting, informative and navigable way.”

The biggest challenge, she says, was to try and represent the Wayback Machine’s relatively slim information (based on the date that the page was crawled, not when it was published, something she calls “blunt”) in appealing ways. The sparkline toolbar — which allows you to navigate easily between different dates — is one way of doing that, and it already seems to be hitting the spot for those in a reflective state of mind.

“It’s funny… I showed the new design to a few trusted friends before we went live, and even though it just maps crawls and not actual updates, some of my advisors felt as if it recalled actual events or times in their lives as they reviewed their own sites through the Wayback lens. Funny how compelling a visual treatment on data can be.”

Right now, there’s no firm timeline on how long it will be before the beta version becomes the real deal — but Oates says that there’s still improvements to be made.

“I’ve really just been watching Twitter since the announcement, and I’m pleased to see that most of that has been really positive. Now it’s beginning to settle somewhat after the initial ‘Oooh, something’s changed!’ stage, we’re starting to get some really useful suggestions for the user interface, which we’ll look to incorporate.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user 4nitsirk

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2 Responses to “Inside the Wayback Machine with George Oates”

  1. Its neat to hear that work is still being done on the Archive. I had been under the impression that they were no longer crawling, so am glad to hear this is not the case. It really is such a powerful resource, especially since Google Cache only lasts for a relatively small period of time after the page has been removed.