July 01, 2014

iWitness: Archival Research

For litigators, the web is an overlooked resource for turning up factual information about the past

Don MacLeod

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“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner wrote that in his 1950 book Requiem for a Nun, but he may as well have been writing it today about the Internet. When most of us think of the online world, we think of its characteristic immediacy: ephemeral tweets, disposable pictures on Instagram, and up-to-the-second text messages. What doesn’t come to mind, though, is that the web is actually a giant archive because, in the electronic world, nothing is ever truly deleted permanently.

For researchers, the web’s value as an immense collection of times past outweighs its usefulness as a conduit of current information. For litigators in particular, this online attic represents a largely overlooked resource for turning up factual information. In fact, the web is a library of stored intelligence on people and companies, products and ideas, and a terrific place to learn the backstory on any imaginable subject. Digging up the past often sheds light on the present, and smart lawyers should know how to winnow out useful nuggets from a variety of interesting websites, free and commercial.


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