The internet is like a library in a nuthouse: there’s lots of good stuff out there, but sometimes a Crazy has drawn on or ripped out the pages. I’m talking about linkrot, the disease that plagues professionals who try and make the web a safe place for all scholars. If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m a semi-lucid, raving baboon. You also know that I am a huge proponent of digitization and internet access of historical data.
That’s why linkrot kills me; it undermines everything that I hope to see come from the web. As a researcher, nothing is more important than reliability of sources. Like a scientist historians have to provide proof for their conclusions, otherwise they will be accused of falsifying data, or worse, relying on an undergrad to sort through documents. That’s why hard copies are so difficult to replace: a book will be in a library, some library, somewhere. An internet site? Not so much.
Linkrot occurs when a web site is linked to (or referenced to , such as in a journal article) but no longer exists, or leads to another location. The source of the data is gone, and cannot be retrieved unless a cached version of the page can be found somewhere.
Servers go down. I’ve known podcasts that can’t handle the traffic of their patrons, so why would a site devoted to historical research be exempt? Funding may cease, data may be lost…then where does all of that stored goodness go? Into oblivion, just like the hopes and dreams of art majors. How can we avoid this disaster? I’ve said in the past: redundancy is the key. If you find a file online that has all of the census data you need, for Pete’s sake, save a copy for yourself. Then you know you’ve got it. You can also download an entire web page, or an article. PDFs may be bigger than some other files, but at least you know you’re safe from dreaded linkrot.
This is why I think entirely web-based journals are bad, and PDF articles are good. PDFs are simple. It’s one file, all of the information and the article is there, in its entirety, whenever you need it. A web-based article has to be kept in its own folder, if you are even allowed to download it, which you may not be. Whatever the case, there are ways to safeguard yourself from linkrot if you’re careful enough to back up your internet sources.
So put a profilactic on your paper, and help prevent linkrot today.