Abstract: Preserving the Business Records of the Dot Coms: "Open Source History" and the Challenge of Digital Archives

David Kirsch and Dalit Baranoff


This paper examines how the growth of electronic records, their increasing importance in daily business operations, and their routine destruction as a matter of policy will affect the business history of the future. In particular, we look at how historians might encounter the evidentiary record of the first important business events of the electronic era, the rise and fall of Internet technology companies during the Dot Com Era. To help address the issues confronting would-be historians, the authors have created a dedicated digital archive to capture potentially historic business records. The paper reviews the motivations for creating the archive, outlines its general goals, and reviews the essential challenges that have been encountered. First, we present the logic justifying the need to document the Dot Com Era as an important moment in business history. Second, we introduce the notion of the "Archival Donut," wherein convergent factors are leading to the destruction of important documents at the center of the business history of the Dot Com Era. Third, we examine why the evidentiary record of the Dot Com Era is at particular risk of destruction. Fourth, we propose "Open Source History"—the development of collective historical narrative through the participation of living historical agents as a constructive reaction to the danger posed by the loss and destruction of essential records. Finally, we advance preliminary conclusions about the implications of the digital revolution for the future business history of the Dot Com Era.