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Losing and Finding Legal Links

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Imagine you’re a legal scholar and you’re examining the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the late nineties to mid-two thousands and you want to understand what resources were consulted to support official opinions. A study in the Yale Journal of Law and Technology indicates you would find that only half of the nearly 555 URL links cited in Supreme Court opinions since 1996 would still work. This problem has been widely discussed in the media and the Supreme Court has indicated it will print all websites cited and place the printouts in physical case files at the Supreme Court, available only in Washington, DC.

Old Georgetown Law School building, photo taken between 1910 - 1925
Georgetown Law School, Washington, DC. Negative, part of National Photo Company Collection, 1910-1925.

On October 24, 2014 Georgetown University Law Library hosted a one-day symposium on this problem which has been studied across legal scholarship and other academic works. The meeting, titled 404/File Not Found: Link Rot, Legal Citation and Projects to Preserve Precedent, presented a broad overview of why websites disappear, why this is particularly problematic in the legal citation context and the proposal of actual solutions and strategies to addressing the problem.

The keynote address was given by Jonathan Zittrain, George Bemis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. A video of his presentation is now available from the meeting website. In it he details a service created by Harvard Law School Libraries and other law libraries called that allows those with an account to submit links that can be archived at a participating library. The use case for is to support links in new forms of academic and legal writing. Today, over 26,000 links have been archived.

Herbert Van de Sompel of the Los Alamos National Laboratory also demonstrated the Memento browser plug-in that allows users who’ve downloaded the plug-in to see archived versions of a website (if that website has been archived) while they are using the live web. The Internet Archive, The British Library, the UK National Archives and other archives around the world all provide archived versions of websites through Memento. The Memento protocol has been widely implemented, integrated in MediaWiki sites and supports “time travel” to old websites that cover all topics.

Both solutions, and Memento, depend on action by, and coordination of, organizations and individuals who are affected by the linkrot problem. At the end of his presentation Van de Sompel reiterated that technical solutions exist to deal with linkrot; what is still needed is broad participation in the selection, collection and archiving of web resources and a sustainable and interoperable infrastructure of tools and services, like Memeno and, that connect the archived versions of website with the scholars, researchers and users that want to access them today and into the future.

Michael Nelson of Old Dominion University, a partner in developing Memento, posted notes on the symposium presentations. For even more background and documentation on the problem of linkrot, the meeting organizers collected a list of readings. The symposium demonstrated the ability of a community, in this case, law librarians, to come together to address a problem in their domain, the results of which benefit the larger digital stewardship community and serve as models for coordinated action.

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