A Historian's take on URLs


Following on from a conversation with @Carl about URLs and link rot (which grew out of a discussion on the Great Content Map of our blog and website) I thought some of you might find this interesting.

Tim Hitchcock is one of the UK’s preeminent historians using digital methods, and has built some pretty spectacular digital humanities projects. I think his take on URLs and not making them ugly is pretty good. Its also a reminder that not everyone “sees” the way the web works, even if so much of the work that they do is online.


Nice article.

FYI for others, this follows on from discussion of link rot Bekka and I were having that included reference to this study (https://blogs.law.harvard.edu/futureoftheinternet/2013/09/22/perma/) from late last year (focussed on law academia, but presumably generally applicable) that found 70% of links referenced in the Harvard Law Journal are now dead, as are 50% of links in all decisions of the US Supreme Court.

Worrying trend for academic accountability/reproducibility. Whether Perma is the solution or not is unclear, but interesting idea.


While I support maintaining links as long as makes sense and creating pretty links that are meaningful, I would like to point out that things aren’t necesarily worse in the digital world: http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2014-02-05/argentine-banking-system-archives-destroyed-deadly-fire

And on a practical point - the internet archive may help if you are looking for a link from way back.


mmm I would argue digital situation is far worse. The above study found 70% of links in Harvard Law Journal 1999-2012 are dead - ie in less than 20 years 2 out of 3 references are gone.

I accept impermanence is a fact of life for both digital and real worlds, but the knowledge shouldn’t rot away that fast (under a generation). Also noting that for digital that’s a best case (no disasters, “natural attrition” still loses 70%), as compared to your example of worst case scenarios.


Also, there is really no reasons for digital stuff to disappear (especially that fast).
There’s a global standard format for persistent identifiers - the problem, I think, is with the creators.

People don’t seem to realise that just throwing something onto the web is like sticking your message on a telephone pole. Eventually it will disappear.