Have you ever saved a web address, commonly known as the URL, only to discover later that the web page no longer exists? What about a website that you had used many times and now can’t locate? This can be annoying in normal life. In genealogical research it can be catastrophic. Losing access to a website that included crucial information about your family is a worst case scenario, especially if you didn’t record the information.
In my Rootstech presentation on source citations I mentioned the importance of adding the access date for a website so that it could be located again using the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine. This website gives you the opportunity to search more than 324 billion web pages from the past. Wikipedia provides background on this remarkable service. Launched in October 2001 by Brewster Kahle and Bruce Gilliat, the Wayback Machine archives cached web pages. Specially designed software “crawls” the web and downloads public pages that are stored on the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine.
How does this help us as genealogists? I’ll give you an example from my own research of the last few months. Several years ago I located an online article titled “Dillards and Johnsons, Early Alabama Pioneers” by Hugh S. Johnson. I had printed the article, but was now returning to my research and wanted to access the article again. The only problem, when I typed in the URL, I got this message.
Now what? How could I complete my research with the article not accessible? I had recently learned about the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine and decided this was the perfect chance to test it out. I typed in the URL from the bottom of my paper printout and the screen below appeared. Notice that it had saved the page 14 times between September 1, 2001 and October 25, 2015 (the black lines in the graph). Clicking on the black lines brought up the calendar for the year and the blue circles showed the exact date the website was saved.
I clicked on each year and blue circle and always came to the same page, pictured below. The URL didn’t change for 14 years and then the website was gone. The Dillard Family Association lost funding or the editor was no longer able to keep it up. The web page was exactly what I had printed out several years ago, giving me information on my Alabama Dillard family.
I had tracked down the original website and story. Not only did I relocate the source of the information I needed, I found the necessary source citation material and an address and email for the compiling editor of the information. I I could navigate within the website and access all of the links.
The copyright date for this website is 1998, now twenty years old. It is an incredible source for the study of the Dillard’s of Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. As I continue my research on this family, I’ll be able to return to this web page often, thanks to the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine.
If you come across the dreaded “page not found” message, be sure to try the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine. It’s just possible you’ll be able to locate that record you had once found.
What if you don’t have the URL? You can do a keyword search. The screenshot below shows several results from my search of “dillard association.” The top hit is the same database that I found using the exact URL from my paper files.
Have you found a web page that you’d like to archive for your genealogy research? The Wayback Machine also offers the capability to capture a web page as it now appears. Simply enter the URL, then you can trust that the source citation you create with that URL will be good in the future.
Best of luck in locating all of your lost websites!