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Wanted: Digital History

Failure is a large part of David Kirch's game, and the Library of Congress just gave him $235,000 to work harder at it.

As an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, Kirch is the driving force behind a project to create the "world's largest digital archive of documents related to the historic dot-com era of the 1990s."

The project -- "my baby," as Kirch calls it -- began in 1992 with a grant from the Sloan Foundation. It involves documenting the spectacular bust of an era that was characterized by a roaring stock market, daily IPOs, stock options, luxurious launch parties, bulging retirement plans and frenzied online day trading.

As Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan said, it was an era of irrational exuberance built on an overheated, overvalued market. From the Alley to the Valley, from Austin to Boston, the digital boom arced over the 1990s only to land with a resounding kerplunk in 2000.

By the time Kirch convinced Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business to document the whole thing, many of the highest-flying companies were long gone. The business plans, spreadsheets, promotional materials, board meeting notes and, yes, even that embarrassing copy of that karaoke night when the company went public, was just so much digital flotsam. Kirch wants it all.

"We're trying to document the history of the era in its own medium," Kirch said. "I firmly believe that 100 years from now, historians will be studying what happened in the 1990s in the United States from a business history angle. If we want to give them a legacy that allows them to actually understand what happened, we need to collect the ones and zeros now."

The Library of Congress grant will be matched by financial and in-kind contributions from the project's partners, which include the Center for History and New Media, the Internet Archive and Gallivan, Gallivan & O'Melia, a digital evidence firm.

"The need to save these materials is evident," said Kirch. "The team we have assembled will help us figure out what can be saved, what should be saved, and exactly how best to do it."

Kirch said the archive contains approximately 3,000 digital objects in the online database; another 20,000 to 30,000 objects are not yet online because of various access and copyright issues.

The archive serves as a repository of dozens of business plans, executive summaries and e-mails from, what seemed at the time, such wonderful ideas like Bikini.com ("Creating a cross-platform global entertainment brand celebrating the California beach lifestyle") and delivery service Kozmo.com.

For Kirch, the history of the era involves more than business plans, and the archive has numerous examples of what he calls "anecdotal" evidence of the times.

There are, for instance, photographs of the promotional "Swag in a Bag" given away by ChickClick.com. It contains four postcards, two stickers, one temporary tattoo, one box of matches, two condoms, one tube of glitter, one clown nose, one ball, one key chain, one duster, one invitation, one can opener and one sponge. There are also numerous pictures of company caps, buttons and metal magnets.

"We're trying to understand how business and culture interacted -- why people believed what they did," Kirsch.

Petscom Graphic This sock puppet from popular
online pet emporium Pets.com is
just one example of vintage company
gear being sought by Kirch.

While the information keeps rolling into Kirch's office, legal issues continue to hamstring the effort to bring it all online.

"We've got legal records, we've got copyrighted business plans, we've got documents from failed companies whose ownership is unknown or legally unresolved," Kirch said. "I get all these calls and people have all this great stuff, but they don't know if they can give it to us."

The Library of Congress grant will be used to put together a team to determine what is legal to publish and what is not. The group consists of bankruptcy, privacy, copyright and attorney-client privilege experts.

"Recent estimates suggest that upwards of 30 percent of all business records produced today never touch paper," said Laura Campbell, associate librarian for strategic initiatives for the Library of Congress, and the librarian in charge of administering the grant program. "Future generations' understanding of the business history of this era will depend upon our ability to develop technical and institutional mechanisms for helping identify, characterize and preserve these materials."

Kirch said obtaining the hard copies of business records in the past didn't present the problems of documenting the digital age.

"In the good old days when everything was on paper, you didn't have to worry about it when it was still fresh. The document landed in an archive a hundred years later when Aunt Myra discovered them cleaning out the attic and she took them down to a library," he said.

For historians, a lot of the access, privilege and copyright issues were swept aside given the age of the records and the fact that the authors were dead.

"Here in the digital age, we can't wait a hundred years for those problems just to dissipate," Kirsch said. "We have to confront them upfront and develop mechanisms we can put in place to ensure confidentiality for a certain period of time, but also ensure the documents survive."