UK Web Archive blog

Information from the team at the UK Web Archive, the Library's premier resource of archived UK websites

The UK Web Archive, the Library's premier resource of archived UK websites

3 posts from September 2015

23 September 2015

British Stand-Up Comedy Archive Special Collection

BSUCA logo

The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive was established at the University of Kent in 2013, following the deposit of personal archive of the stand-up comedian, writer and broadcaster Linda Smith (1958-2006). Even prior to this deposit the University already had a longstanding interest in stand-up comedy and comic performance through teaching (at both BA and MA levels) and research (at PhD level and through the research interests of School of Arts staff). After this initial deposit other comedians were approached to see whether there was a demand from comedians, agents and venues to archive their material, and others who deposited material early in the life of the archive included the comedian and political activist Mark Thomas, and Tony Allen, one of the pioneers of the alternative cabaret/comedy movement in the late 1970s and 1980s. 

Promotional publication for 'Tuff Lovers'. This is a four paged pamphlet including photographs, achievements, reviews and contact details. The other side to this pamphlet is shown in image BSUCA/LS/3/2/1/010(1). (c) Linda Smith estate. Photos by Pat McCarthy, design by Stephen Houfe.

In 2014 the University of Kent offered funding for a number of projects to celebrate its 50th anniversary and one of these became the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive (BSUCA). The BSUCA has a number of aims: to ensure that the archives and records of stand-up comedy in the UK are cared for in order to permanently preserve them; to ensure that these archives are universally accessible, discoverable and available; that the archives are actually used, and used in a variety of ways (popular culture, academic research, teaching, journalism, general enjoyment); and to acquire more offers of appropriate deposits. We also have an internal goal, which is to establish standards, workflows, and policies (with regards to digitisation, digital preservation and deposit negotiations) which aim to inform the future collecting activities of the University’s Special Collections & Archives department.


One of the things I was keen to do when I was appointed as Archivist in January 2015 was to ensure that websites and social media relating to stand-up comedy were being archived. So much of how comedians promote and publicise themselves today, and interact with their audience, is done through social media and websites, and I’ve already noticed that websites referenced in material in the BSUCA collections have already disappeared without being captured. So I was delighted that the UK Web Archive team were happy for me to curate a special ‘British Stand-Up Comedy Archive’ collection for the UK Web Archive! My approach so far has been two-fold. 

Approach 1: filling the gaps

One focus has been on nominating websites for inclusion which relate to collections that we already have within the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive. For example, I have been nominating the websites and social media accounts of those whose work we have been physically and digitially archiving at the University, such as Attila the Stockbroker’s website and twitter account.  I have also been nominating sites which complement the collections we have. For example, within The Mark Thomas Collection we have copies of articles he has written, but only those which he collected himself. In fact there are many more which he has written which are only available online. The idea behind this approach is that we can ‘fill the gaps’ for researchers interested in those whose archives we have, by ensuring that other material relevant to that comedian/performer is being archived. These websites are provided in sub-categories with the name of the collection they relate to (i.e. Linda Smith Collection, Mark Thomas Collection).


Approach 2: providing an overview of stand-up comedy in the UK today

As we are trying to collect material related to stand-up comedy in the UK I think that it is really important to try to capture as much information as possible about current comedians and the current comedy scene, nationally and locally. So my second focus has been on nominating websites which provide an overview of stand-up comedy in the UK today. Rather than initially focussing on nominating the websites of individual comedians (which would be an enormous task!) I have instead been nominating websites which are dedicated to comedy in the UK, both at a national level, such as Chortle and Beyond the Joke, and those at a regional level such as Giggle Beats (for comedy in the north of England) and London is Funny. I’ve also nominated the comedy sections in national news outlets like the Guardian and The Huffington Post (UK), as well as in regional news outlets such as The Skinny (Scotland and the north west of England), The Manchester Evening News, and The York Press. These websites include news, interviews with comedians and others involved in comedy, as well as reviews and listings of upcoming shows. The idea was that capturing these sorts of websites would help to demonstrate which comedians were performing, where they were performing, and perhaps some of the themes discussed by comedians in their shows. These websites have been categorised into the sub-category 'Stand-up news, listings and reviews'. 

I’ve also been focusing on the websites of comedy venues in order to document the variety of comedy clubs there are, to provide an overview of the comedians who are performing, as well as to document other issues like the cost of attending a comedy club night.  Many of the clubs whose websites have been nominated are quite longstanding venues, such as Downstairs at the Kings Head (founded in 1981), the Banana Cabaret Club in Balham (established 1983), and The Stand Comedy Club (established in Edinburgh in 1995). And of course I’ve also been focusing on comedy festivals around the UK. Much material relating to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe had already been included in the UK Web Archive but websites for Free Fringe events (which many see as important for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe*), such as the Free Festival and PBH’s Free Fringe, have now been nominated. I’ve also been nominating websites for comedy festivals around the UK, ranging from large established festivals such has the (Dave) Leicester Comedy Festival and the Machynlleth Comedy Festival, to smaller festivals such as the Croydon Comedy Festival and Argcomfest (Actually Rather Good Comedy Festival). The sub-category of 'Venues and festivals' is by far the largest sub-category so far! 


Other features of current stand-up comedy that have been captured include organisations such as the Comedy Support Act (a charity funded by benefit shows which aims to provide emergency funds and assistance to professional comedians who find themselves in financial hardship through serious illness or accident) and organisations and events which celebrate and promote women in comedy such as What The Frock!, Laughing Cows Comedy, and the Women in Comedy Festival.

Next steps:

For me, the idea behind the special collection has been to (begin) to ensure that websites and social media relating to stand-up comedy in the UK are being archived for current and future researchers (and others) interested in stand-up comedy. But there are so many more websites that I haven't yet been able to nominate, particularly those of individual comedians or performers. But, the UK Web Archive is open to all (as long as the website is part of the UK web domain), so if there are websites relating to UK stand-up comedy that you want to be archived in the UK Web Archive please nominate them here!  

* Luke Toulson, 'Why free is the future of the fringe...and 7 more ways to improve the festival',; and Nick Awde, 'Free shows are ringing the Edinburgh Fringe changes', 


For further information about the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive find out more at these links:






by Elspeth Millar, Project Archivist, British Stand-Up Comedy Archive at University of Kent

18 September 2015

Ten years of the UK web archive: what have we saved?

I gave the following presentation at the 2015 IIPC GA. If you prefer, you can read the rough script with slides below rather than watch the video.




We started archiving websites by permission towards the end of 2004 (e.g. The Hutton Enquiry), building up what we now call the Open UK Web Archive. In part, this was considered a long-term investment, helping us build up the skills and infrastructure we need to support large-scale domain crawls under non-print Legal Deposit legislation, which we’ve been performing since 2013.

Furthermore, to ensure we have as complete a record as possible, we also hold a copy of the Internet Archives’ collection of .uk domain web material up until the Legal Deposit regulations were enacted. However these regulations are going to be reviewed, and could, in principle, be withdrawn. So, what should we do?

To ensure the future of these collections, and to reach our goals, we need to be able to articulate the value of what we’ve saved. And to do this, we need a better understanding of our collections and how they can be used.

Understanding Our Collections

So, if we step right back and just look at those 8 billion resources, what do we see? Well, the WARCs themselves are just great big bundles of crawled resources. They reflect the harvester and the bailer, not the need.


So, at the most basic level, we need to be able to find things and look at them, and we use OpenWayback to do that. This example shows our earliest archived site, reconstructed from the server-side files of the British Library’s first web server. But you can only find it if you know that the British Library web site used to be hosted at “”.


But that mode of access requires you to know what URLs you are interested in, so we have also built up various themed collections of resources, making the archive browsable.


However, we’re keenly aware that we can’t catalog everything.

To tackle this problem, have also built full-text indexes of our collections. In effect, we’ve built an historical search engine, and having invested in that level of complexity, it has opened up a number of different ways of exploring our archives. The “Big Data Research” panel later today will explore this in more detail, but for now here’s a very basic example.


This graph shows the fraction of URLs from hosts and hosts over time. We can see that back in 1996, about half the UK domain was hosted on academic servers, but since then has come to dominate the picture. Overall, in absolute terms, both have grown massively during that period, but as a fraction of the whole, is much diminished. This is exactly the kind of overall trend that we need to be aware of when we are trying to infer something from a more specific trend, such as the prevalence of medical terms on the uk web.

However, these kinds of user interfaces are hard to build and are forced to make fairly strong assumptions about what the user wants to know. So, to complement our search tools, we also generate various secondary datasets from the content so more technically-adept users can explore our data using their own tools. This provides a way of handing rich and interesting data to researchers without handing over the actual copyrighted content, and has generated a reasonable handful of publications so far.


This process also pays dividends directly to us, in that the way researchers have attempted to exploit our collections has helped us understand how to do a better job when we crawl the web. As a simple example, one researcher used the 1996 link graph to test his new graph layout algorithm, and came up with this visualization.


For researchers, the clusters of connectivity are probably the most interesting part, but for us, we actually learned the most from this ‘halo’ around the edge. This halo represents hosts that a part of the UK domain, but are only linked to from outside the UK domain. Therefore, we cannot build a truly representative picture of the UK domain unless we allow ourselves to stray outside it.

The full-text indexing process also presents an opportunity to perform deeper characterization of our content, such as format and feature identification and scanning for preservation risks. This has confirmed that the vast majority of the content (by volume) is not at risk of obsolescence at the format level, but has also illustrated how poorly we understand the tail of the format distribution and the details of formats and features that are in use.


For example, we also build an index that shows which tags are in use on each HTML page. This means we can track the death and birth of specific features like HTML elements. Here, we can see the death of the <applet>, <blink> and <font> tags, and the massive explosion in the usage of the <script> tag. This helps us understand the scale of the preservation problems we face.

Putting Our Archives In Context

But all this is rather inward looking, and we wanted to find ways of complementing these approaches by comparing our collections with others and especially with the live web. This is perhaps the most fundamental way of stating the value of what we’ve collected as it addresses the basic quality of the web that we need to understand - it’s volatility.


How has our archival sliver of the web changed? Are the URLs we’ve archived still available on the live web? Or are they long since gone? If those URLs are still working, is the content the same as it was?


One option would be to go through our archives and exhaustively examine every single URL to work out what has happened to it. However, the Open UK Web Archive contains many millions of archived resources, and even just checking their basic status would be very time-consuming, never mind performing any kind of detailed comparison of the content of those resources.

Sampling The URLs

Fortunately, to get a good idea of what has happened, we don’t need to visit every single item. We can use our index to randomly sample a 1000 URLs from each year the archive has been in operation. We can then try to download those URLs again, and use the results to build up a picture that compares our archival holdings to the current web.


As we download each URL, if the host has disappeared, or the server is unreachable, we say its GONE. If the server responds with an ERROR, we record that. If the server responds but does not recognize the URL, we classify it as MISSING, but if the server does recognize the URL, we classify it as MOVED or OK depending on whether a chain of redirects was involved. Note that we did look for “Soft 404s” at the same time, but found that these are surprisingly rare on the .uk domain.

Plotting the outcome by year, we find this result:


The overall trend clearly shows how the items we have archived have disappeared from the live web, with individual URLs being forgotten as time passes. Looking at 2013, even after just two years, 40% of the URLs are GONE or MISSING.

Is OK okay?

However, so far, this only tells us what URLs are still active - the content of those resources could have changed completely. To explore this issue, we have to dig a little deeper by downloading the content and trying to compare what’s inside.


We start by looking at a simple example - this page from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. If we want to compare this page with an archived version, one simple option is to ignore the images and tags, and just extract all the text.


However, comparing these big text chunks is still rather clumsy and difficult scale, so we go one step further and reduce the text to a fingerprint1.

A fingerprint is conceptually similar to the hashes and digests that most of us are familiar with, like MD5 or SHA-256, but with one crucial difference. When you change the input to an cryptographic hash, the output changes completely - there’s no way to infer any relationship between the two, and indeed it is that very fact that makes these algorithms suitable for cryptography.


For a fingerprint, however, if the input changes a little, then the output only changes a little, and so it can be used to bring similar inputs together. As an example, here are our fingerprints for out test page – one from earlier this year and another from the archive. As you can see, this produces two values that are quite similar, with the differences highlighted in red. More precisely, they are 50% similar as you’d have to edit half of the characters to get from one to the other.

To understand what these differences mean, we need to look at the pages themselves. If we compare the two, we can see two small changes, one to the logo and one to the text in the body of the page.



But what about all the differences at the end of the fingerprint? Well, if we look at the whole page, we can see that there are major differences in the footer. In fact, it seems the original server was slightly mis-configured when we archived it in 2013, and has accidentally injected a copy of part of the page inside overall page HTML.


So, this relatively simple text fingerprint does seem to reliably reflect both the degree of changes between versions of pages, and also where in the pages those changes lie.

Processing all of the ‘MOVED’ or ‘OK’ URLs in this way, we find:


We can quickly see that for those URLs that appeared to be okay, the vast majority have actually changed. Very few are binary identical, and while about half of the pages remain broadly similar after two years, that fraction tails off as we go back in time.

We can also use this tactic to compare the OK and MOVED resources.


For resources that are two years old, we find that URLs that appear to be OK are only identical to the archived versions one third of the time, similar another third of the time, but the remaining third are entirely dissimilar. Not surprisingly, the picture is much worse for MOVED URLs, which are largely dissimilar, with less than a quarter being similar or identical.

The URLs Ain’t Cool

Combining the similarity data with the original graph, get this result:


Shown in this way, it is clear that very few archived resources are still available, unchanged, on the current web. After just two years, 60% have gone or have changed into something unrecognizable.2

This rot rate is significantly higher than I expected, so I began to wonder whether this a kind collection bias. The Open UK Web Archive often prioritized sites known to be at risk, and that selection criteria seems likely to affect the overall trends. So, to explore this issue, I also ran the same analysis over a randomly sampled subset of our full, domain-scale Legal Deposit collection.


However, the results came out almost exactly the same. After two years, about 60% of the content has GONE or is unrecognizable. Furthermore, looking at the 2014 data, we can see that after just one year, although only 20% of the URLs themselves have rotted, a further 30% of the URLs are unrecognizable. We’ve lost half the UK web in just one year.

This raised the question of whether this instability can be traced to specific parts of the UK web. Is more stable than, for example?


Looking at those results showed that, in fact, there’s not a great deal to choose between them. The changes to the NHS during 2013 seem to have had an impact on the number of identical resources, with perhaps a similar story for the restructuring of, but there’s not that much between all of them.

What We’ve Saved (2004-2014)

Pulling the Open and Legal Deposit data together, we can get an overview of the situation across the whole decade. For me, this big, black hole of content lost from the live web is a powerful way of visualizing the value of what we’ve saved over those ten years.



I expected the rot rate to be high, but I was shocked by how quickly link rot and content drift come to dominate the scene. 50% of the content is lost after just one year, with more being lost each subsequent year. However, it’s worth noting that the loss rate is not maintained at 50%/year. If it was, the loss rate after two years would be 75% rather than 60%. This indicates there are some islands of stability, and that any broad ‘average lifetime’ for web resources is likely to be a little misleading.

We’ve also found that this relatively simple text fingerprint provides some useful insight. It does ignore a lot, and is perhaps overly sensitive to changes in the ‘furniture’ of a web site, but it’s useful and importantly, scalable.

There are a number of ways we might take this work forward, but I’m particularly interested in looking for migrated content. These fingerprints and hashes are in our full-text index, which means we can search for similar content that has moved from one URL to another even if the was never any redirect between them. Studying content migration in this way would allow us to explore how popular content moves around the web.

I’d also like to extend the same sampling analysis in order to compare our archives with those of other institutions via the Memento protocol.


Thank you, and are there any questions?


If you’re interested in this work you can find:

  1. This technique has been used for many years in computer forensics applications, such as helping to identify ‘bad’ software, and here we adapt the approach in order to find similar web pages. 
  2. Or, in other words, very few of our archived URLs are cool

02 September 2015

2015 UK Domain Crawl has started


We are proud to announce that the 2015 UK Domain Crawl has started !

Over the next weeks our web crawler will visit every website in the UK, download and keep it safe on the British Library archive servers.

Robot_icon.svg By Bilboq (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Previous crawls

The first ever UK Domain crawl was run in 2013 it resulted in:

  • 3.8 million seeds (starting URLs)
  • 31TB data
  • 1.9 billion web pages and other assets

The 2014 built on experiences and yielded:

  • 20 million seeds
  • Geo IP check of UK hosted websites (2.5 million seeds)
  • 56TB data
  • 2.5 billion webpages and other assets
  • including: 4.7GB of viruses and 3.2TB of screenshots


What will the 2015 crawl be like? Will we find more urls? Surely the web grows every day, but how much? Will there be more data? Will we have more virus content?

Tweet your suggestions and thoughts about the UK Domain @UKWebArchive or use the #UKWebCrawl2015


 Homepage Crawl Log Flypast © Andy Jackson