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Friends of the E.B.Williams Law Library

Spring 2015 Newsletter 

Successful Symposium

404/File Not Found:
Link Rot, Legal Citation, and Projects
to Preserve Precedent

404 Link Rot Logo

On October 24, 2014, Georgetown Law Library hosted a symposium that explored the problem of link and reference rot – more commonly referred to as the problem of broken web links.

Because the web is fluid and mutable, challenges are created in legal environments, where fixed content is necessary for legal writers to support their conclusions. Judges, attorneys, academics, and others using citations need systems and practices to preserve cited web content and to make it reliably available. Catalysts for this symposium included yearly reports from the Chesapeake Digital Preservation Group, several papers highlighting the problem and resulting media coverage (e.g., The New York Times), and consisted of a keynote address by Jonathan Zittrain (George Bemis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School) and a lunchtime presentation by Georgetown Law Library’s Roger Skalbeck, as well as panel discussions entitled “Whose Problem is This,?” “Scoping the Problem – Analytical and Predictive,” “Strategies I,” and “Strategies II.”

Zittrain’s keynote was entitled “Preserving our Digital Trail: A Call to Arms,” and he spoke about the core purpose of .edu.  He included details about perma.cc, a service developed at Harvard and of which Georgetown Law Library is a founding member.  Perma.cc is a web caching service that allows registered users to retrieve and save the contents of a cited web page and return a permanent perma.cc link. When a user later visits the link, it will take him/her to a page that will display options to view both the current version as well as the cached version as the creator of the link originally saw it.

The panel for “Whose Problem is This?” consisted of Karen Eltis from the University of Ottawa, who spoke about “permanence [on the web] where we don’t want it, and transience where we require longevity.” Next was David Walls from the Government Publishing Office, who spoke about its efforts to provide permanent public access to government information. The last speaker was Ed Walters from Fastcase, who spoke on link rot from the perspective of a small publisher. He revealed that they do not create hyperlinks because of the link rot problem.

The second panel “Scoping the Problem – Analytical and Predictive,” started with Raizel Liebler from John Marshall Law School and author of Something Rotten in the State of Legal Citation: The Life Span of a United States Supreme Court Citation Containing an Internet Link (1996-2010), who also provided a handout of links used in Supreme Court documents in 2013-2014. The second speaker was Rod Wittenberg of Reed Technology and Information Services, Inc., who spoke about the significant impact of the impermanence of the web on commercial interests such as LexisNexis.

Roger Skalbeck, Georgetown Law Library’s Associate Law Librarian for Electronic Resources and Services, spoke over lunch about the problem from the perspective of a webmaster. He mentioned web site best practices as well as issues around URI creation. One tweet during this session referred to the classic “Cool URIs don’t change” web page.

During the “Strategies I” session, Jefferson Bailey from the Internet Archive spoke specifically about the Archive-It subscription service, which allows institutions to build, manage, and search their own web archive. Herbert Van de Sompel from Los Alamos National Laboratory then followed with “Creating Pockets of Persistence,” a presentation about the Memento Project. This project is an attempt to permit users to view any web page as it looked on a given date in the past.

In the last session, “Strategies II,” Leah Prescott from Georgetown Law Library spoke about the Chesapeake Digital Preservation Group and how this repository strategy differs from other efforts such as perma.cc. Kim Dulin from Harvard then went into greater depth about perma.cc, its archive, and the plans for the service going forward. Lastly, E. Dana Neacşu from Columbia Law School presented on a project done there to archive online sources cited in domestic law review articles in the form they existed in as of the date they were cited.

The day proved to be stimulating, informative and timely, and in addition to those who attended in person, there were an additional 180 people attending via streaming video. The presentations have been made available on the Georgetown Law Library web site at http://www.law.georgetown.edu/library/404/streaming.cfm.

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