404: Friend or Foe?

For the Second Edition, I’m reviewing the web links I cited in the original.  The bad news?  Half the links I cited have broken.   I’ve seen rather a lot of 404 message screens!

404 message
Github 404 error message, from Mehdi Kabab’s flickrstream, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The good news?  Almost all the pages or documents with broken links are still available elsewhere on the web.  So why have they moved?   Many of my citations are reports, policies and the like produced by large organisations such as CILIP, the National Archives, and the Association of Research Libraries.  Such organisations regularly change their content management systems and re-organise their websites to reflect new ways of working and to offer better services to their audiences.  This results in changes to the website structure and thus links no longer work though the documents are usually still there – somewhere.

Links to blogposts and to the websites of very small organisations have been much more stable.  However, in the longer term, this information may be more at risk, as the creators are private individuals or organisations which may cease to exist at short notice and without a wind-down period!

So what does this mean?  I think we have to accept a degree of “link rot” as the price paid for a dynamic and up-to-date web presence.  Organisations which change frequently and which operate in a turbulent environment need their web presence to reflect this.

It’s also the price to be paid for precise linking.  I could avoid deep-linking and just cite the top level website, but I believe this kind of linking is pointless and confusing.  It requires the user to do a search, which they could have done just as well without the link.

Nowadays though, it is possible to have both a dynamic website and stable links for important documents, thanks to institutional repositories and other sites developed with long-term linkability in mind.  I will try to cite the most stable link for any resource I mention in the Handbook.  If you find a 404 on this site, please accept my apologies, and let me know about it!


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