The increasing number of primary and secondary sources made available by various online archives and databases continue to aid researchers and enrich the historical community as a whole.
But they have also created challenges for more conventional forms of resource sharing in a community where print arguably remains the standard.
While websites have generally made a more concerted effort to reduce the length of their root URL (uniform resource locator) in recent years, things like course materials, references, and finding aides have all become bloated with long strings of seemingly random, run-on characters.
Their presence within endnotes and footnotes is particularly disruptive, where a single note already has the potential to snowball into a self-contained realm and acquire something akin to sovereignty as it slowly envelops the page.
This is a problem we share and one that requires our attention for two reasons.
First, it will only compound as more and more sources are made available online. Referring to the physical source is best but not always possible. And while hyperlinks offer an efficient work-around for digital content, they do not translate to print.
Second, unwieldy links hinder the ability of professionals and the public to share findings and sources with themselves and one another. And despite the Internet’s best efforts to level distribution, many people already find run-on references and archival organization intimidating even without links.
Exactly how to solve this problem is unclear.
But let’s look at one possible solution: the URL shortener.
URL shorteners do exactly what they suggest: they replace a long string of seemingly random, run-on characters and crunch them into a much smaller, more memorable link.
They began circulating with the launch of tinyurl.com in 2002 and have come to fill a niche on social networking sites where character limits (i.e. the ‘Twitter effect’) have transformed them into a burgeoning micro-industry.
Among the more popular URL shorteners are stand-alone services, like bit.ly and is.gd, while larger sites like Flickr (flic.kr) and even Google (goo.gl) have already stated to integrate them into their broader platforms.
The popularity of these services is understandable but they are not without criticism. Joshua Schachter offers what is perhaps the most comprehensive critique of URL shorteners; arguing, among other things, that they undermine link integrity (causing linkrot), destabilize security, and enable spam. And he has a point: the current crop of URL shortening services are not built to last.
But here’s where it gets complicated: sites like the Globe and Mail (tgam.ca) and the New York Times (nyturl.com) have started to offer their own short URLs on dedicated databases that are presumably less susceptible to things like linkrot and spam interdiction.
That may very well elevate specific URL shorteners over others but what about shorter URLs in theory?
Perhaps we should start to experiment with a few pilot programs at select databases and universities. Consider, for example, how a shorter URL system could improve access and attract a wider audience to databases like the oldbaileyonline.org.
While the oldbaileyonline.org provides all of the original publication data, that may not be prudent or useful in all circumstances. More directly, the root URL is short and stable but searches invariably lead to complicated, run-away links. Perhaps even something as simple as the Globe and Mail‘s “tgam.ca” (i.e. olgbail.ey/a1b1c1d1) on a dedicated database would suffice.
You must admit, it is rather tempting.
In the meantime, short URLs may not be the best solution — and the increasingly popular URL shorteners services should probably be avoided — but exploring ways to rein in our run-away link problem is certainly a conversation worth having.