Preserving the “Web before the Web:” Minitel history in danger of being lost

Minitel was wildly popular online world Computer History Museum wants to preserve

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It's been almost a year since France Telecom shut down its once widely popular Minitel online services and historians are worried that its legacy is being lost forever.

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA., naturally wants to collect and preserve all manner of industry historical artifacts and Minitel if one of the central components of its "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing" exhibit.  

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And on the museum's blog this week the curator of the museum's Internet History Program Marc Weber wrote "The attempt to help preserve meaningful records of online systems can feel like at best you're managing to pull a few tomes from a library burning in slow motion."

The museum has been trying to collect some of the more vulnerable records of Minitel (as well as other historical online services), as well as encouraging other institutions to preserve them. Such records include software, data, internal documents and other kinds of "behind the scenes" materials, the things most at risk because they tend to get thrown out. Often the people who control their disposition have no inkling they might be of historical value, or that anybody collects them, Weber wrote

Then Minitel shut down last spring, turning the constant background risk of lost records into a potential crisis. From a preservation point of view this is a high-stakes period, when much can be thrown away - or saved, Weber wrote.

From the blog: "Despite Minitel and other major innovations like the CYCLADES network that helped develop the Internet, France has no major public museum with explicit responsibility for computing. But this may be about to change. There is a very real hope that within a few years France may assemble a world-class museum of computing within the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM), and that key records of Minitel will find a proper, permanent home. Its museum serves as France's national museum of science and technology. With the system's shutdown and the new computing museum potentially in the offing, there seems to be more momentum toward saving Minitel materials. Simply by expressing interest in it as a computing museum and one with an Internet History Program, we hope we are sending a strong message about its historical importance. We talked with a number of top pioneers, computer historians and institutions about working together toward these goals."

France Telecom retired Minitel on June 30, 2012.  At its height it is said as many as 30 million people in France used the system and that an enormous subculture of 10,000 companies offering some 26,000 different services were available.

Minitel offered e-commerce, bill payment and home banking in many cases way before such services were available elsewhere in the world.  "The huge use of dating and personal bulletin board services using the consumer-coded 3615 number in the early years of Minitel caused some members of the French government to speak out on what they believed were wasted valuable public funds spent developing nothing more than a glorified online bar," the IDG New Service wrote in 1998.

"The Web world would do well not to discount the Minitel and to learn from its mistakes. Do mantras such as 'contribute to improving democracy and citizenship,' 'create a system accessible to the entire population,' and eliminate 'a two-tier information society' sound familiar? These were some of the charges of the initial Minitel system in 1983," the IDG story stated.

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