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How Should We Guard Against Link Rot?

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How Should We Guard Against Link Rot?

Thomas Whitley

Earlier this week Anna Neima wrote on History Today that "historians need to address the threat to footnotes by wholesale adoption of the permalink." Neima lays out the problem quite well.

An American study of two leading history journals found that in articles published seven years earlier, 38 percent of web citations were dead.

Regardless of the difficulty of tracking down obscure references, one can almost always eventually track down the source with enough diligence. Link rot, the process by which internet links become dead or point to pages that are no longer available, however, means that some sources can never be tracked down. This is something that needs to be addressed for a variety of disciplines. While I don't often include hyperlinks in formal papers that I write due to the nature of the sources with which I work, I regularly include them in the online-only writing that I do for Marginalia and the History of Christianity blog. Neima suggests that everyone adopt the permalink, specifically calling for readers to use perma.cc. Perma.cc "allows users to create citation links that will never break." This is accomplished by archiving the webpage in question, which is then stored by perma.cc. On the surface, this seems like the perfect solution to link rot, but at least two issues arise.

1. What happens when perma.cc goes out of business? To be sure, perma.cc plans to be around for a long time, but what happens when they inevitably go the way of MySpace and Friendfeed (R.I.P.)? Perma.cc is trying to combat this eventuality by partnering with many large libraries and law schools as well as "other organizations in the 'forever' business." Yet with the funding cuts in higher education that have become rampant lately and that are beginning to affect libraries, we cannot be confident that these partnerships, and likely funding sources, will themselves be around forever, putting perma.cc in a precarious position. If perma.cc goes the way of AltaVista (remember them?!), what happens to all of their archives? (They do have a Contingency Plan, but is hardly one that should result in confidence that one's Perma Links will actually be permanent.)

2. Perma.cc is not open and democratized. My biggest contention with perma.cc is their vesting process.

Because perma.cc is a service mainly for scholarly journals, courts, and libraries, and because they no doubt have limited storage capacity for hosting archived pages, all Perma Links must be "vested by someone with vesting authority." That is, I can create a free perma.cc account and begin making Perma Links for the articles I write, but if someone does not "vest" them in 2 years, they will disappear. And why would one of the "vesting authorities" vest the random things I link to when I write (like stories about Russians burning effigies of Obama for Lent)? Or, what's to stop someone from "vesting" a Perma Link for less-than-noble reasons? Vesting, according to perma.cc "signifies that an individual affiliated with a journal, court or library has confirmed that the archived materials support these goals and should be preserved as a part of the permanent collection of participating libraries." On what grounds are these decisions made? A Perma Link must support perma.cc's goal "to provide lasting links to online materials cited in academic scholarship, judicial opinions and educational materials." Will questions arise as to what counts as "academic scholarship" or "educational materials"?

In other words, what sort of official discourse will the archiving of certain pages, but not others, produce? If the main reason for not archiving simply everything that everyone wants archived due to storage constraints (after all, we probably reached peak cat-video-saturation years ago), why not offer paid accounts? This would, of course, still result in those with money making sure that their pages are archived while those without would be left with no such assurances. And, lest we think that perma.cc is not fully aware of their role in curating only authorized content, they state up front that their vesting process is "to ensure that vesting only occurs when warranted."

So, how do we, as internet users, historians, and others guard against link rot? Perma.cc is one option, but it only serves a small population of internet users and has an authority structure that seems at odds with the open and democratized web that many are fighting for. Should not a permalink service be more like RSS, in that it becomes a standard protocol and not simply a service is controlled by one (or a few) company for its specific demographic (Vint Cerf is working on future digital compatibility though his focus is less on the internet and more on digitally stored files)? Archive.org seems like a possible alternative, but its Way Back Machine does not contain everything you may want it to, for a variety of reasons.

I think link rot is something we should be guarding against, but I'm not sure that we've found a viable solution that is comprehensive, user-friendly, and democratized.