What to do (and what not to do) with your legacy content

(Audio version not available yet, let me know if you would find one useful and I will prioritise it)

I have a YouTube playlist of my favourite films that I made during my time as “Multimedia Producer” at the Wellcome Trust. I left Wellcome 11 years ago and I haven’t done a film since, for various reasons, but it’s nice to have my work there collected for posterity. Having put together the playlist, I have occasionally had cause to go look at it. Every time I do, I get a notification telling me that more videos from it have disappeared. As of today, five videos that I was sufficiently proud of to put on the list have been removed by Wellcome from YouTube, along with several others that didn’t make my own cut. In fact, of however many videos I made for the Wellcome Trust, only one remains (all the films I created for Wellcome Collection are still on YouTube though, which is nice). 

It happens, you know? I have been part of making all sorts of online content for a long time now, and I certainly didn’t expect it all to stick around. I spent several enjoyable but tiring months making forty odd short films about London points of interest (the Thames Barrier! folklore on the foreshore! flora, fauna and history and so on! loved that project), for the now defunct WalkLondon website, long gone. I set up an online magazine about educational games called EdugamesHub (with Kirsten Campbell-Howes) and commissioned a bunch of articles and interviews that we were really pleased with. We sunset it a few years ago because we had both moved on and couldn’t find a way to keep it going. 

In both those cases, the sites were set up by organisations that no longer exist, or individuals who didn’t have the resources to continue to run them. I am forever grateful for the Internet Archive for saving something of this content (if not the flash or video, understandably, that is really properly gone I think).

But what about if you are a bigger organisation who can expect to persist for many years into the future. How do you handle legacy content? I’ve been thinking about this this week as I watch the fall out from the Wellcome Trust shutting their longform science journalism website, Mosaic. Mosaic was launched after my time there, I had nothing to do with it, but I watched it grow and grow and produce consistently high quality articles that made their way into national and international newspapers, university courses, social media and so on, especially under the careful editorial eye of Chrissie Giles and her colleagues including commissioning editor Mun-Keat Looi (and others who I am less aware of, I’m sure). 

Given the apparent success of the site, I was surprised when it was canned by Wellcome a few years ago. But also, not that surprised, not really. Wellcome has always had an uncomfortable relationship with communicating on subjects that aren’t directly about Wellcome funded projects – is this PR, public engagement, journalism? How does it fit into organisational strategy? They never seemed able to square this in my time there, or, from what I could tell, afterwards. 

When it shut, they released this statement about the closure, but said “We will keep Mosaic content available as it is now until we identify the right way to archive it, so the work of the past years is not lost.” I was still a bit surprised, then, to see Giles post on twitter this week that Wellcome was actually taking down the whole site with apparently about 3 days notice for anyone who wanted to retrieve their work. (Chrissie was made redundant when Mosaic shut, so had nothing to do with this decision and was merely the messenger). No official announcement has been made by Wellcome and no explanation was forthcoming; it appeared to be left to their previous editor to notify writers and artists of the change. People were not happy. In the absence of any apparent official intervention, the former copy editor, Tom Freeman, put together a list on his own site of Mosaic article links from the Internet Archive so at least some record of it all survives.

Some types of content are hard to keep going in the face of software updates (or loss, as with Adobe Flash), but a straightforward website should be easy to maintain, shouldn’t it? Especially if there is evidence that it is still being used and contains some particularly important work (and is still relevant, could potentially still have use and still be promotable). And since content that exists on third party platforms such as YouTube doesn’t need maintenance, in what circumstances should you take it down?

So, what’s best practice here?

I believe that, as part of any digital strategy, one should include a considered and consistent policy on how you handle legacy content. Things to factor in (based in part on the Government policy on maintaining legacy technology):

  • Do you have a clear and trackable record of all your content, how it is hosted and how to access it? 
  • Can you put in a regular (perhaps annual) review of legacy content using this record to make sure that it is working or see if it should be removed as per your policy? Or even be re-promoted or find a new audience?
  • Usage vs maintenance cost. Can you quantify and specify the point at which you believe the usage and impact is outweighed by the cost in terms of money and resources required to host and maintain online content (and apply this metric consistently in future when reviewing legacy content)? Remember that maintenance can include updates to keep it working through software or CMS updates. Is it something that could be converted to flat, static html to avoid this (which is a more environmentally friendly way to build informational sites in the first place!)?
  • What sort of content is it, and how is it likely to be used? Will users be storing their own data or creations in it (and do you need to consider GDPR protocols for this if so)? Will many people be creating links to it that might break? Is it information that people will rely on to do stuff with? Should you create categories of content that might have different legacy approaches to?
  • Have you made sure that it is archived, both internally and externally? The Internet Archive is the biggie, but the British Library also curates a collection of websites https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/uk-web-archive. Can you create a back up that will persist and be retrievable, even if you have to remove it from the public web for whatever reason?
  • If you have to take it down, how should you communicate this? Do you have a record of those people who need to know, who might want to retrieve their work? How much notice is fair to give them?
  • Can you create a meaningful redirect for the old content so that all links go somewhere with an explanation (and ideally a link to the archived version)?

What have I missed? Have you any good examples of legacy policy for content that you’d be willing to share? 

Obviously, I don’t feel that Wellcome have handled the removal of content very well here from a public point of view (I haven’t asked anyone there for comment or explanation, but I have seen others ask on Twitter and get no response). Perhaps they do have a clear and consistent policy that they are adhering to but as it hasn’t been communicated in these instances, they have risked upsetting people and losing important and valuable content for posterity. I’m not saying my videos were super important but they did, for example, include interviews with people who were very kind and brave to share their stories and did so in the hope that they would have a positive ongoing impact*. Mosaic contained some really brilliant work that could have continued to find readers as it still remained relevant. If I have misunderstood the situation, I’d welcome a correction.

*It is of course possible that people in those films requested they be removed for some reason. Seems unlikely that could be the case for all, but I should mention that as a possibility.

Edited to add: some interesting further discussion on Twitter following my post on this, see below. And thank you to Fiona Romeo for pointing me at this article on the MOMA efforts to archive exhibition websites (Flash and all) through the New York Art Resources Consortium.

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