Zotero & the Way Back Machine

30 Sep
Save a web page in Zotero

Saving a Website by crumj via Flickr

I use the online citation plug-in Zotero to manage my digital resources such as web sites about prayerwalking, prayer marches, faith walks, and so on. It’s an invaluable tool because these sites are often hard to fit in the citation standards available to us. Zotero pulls information from the pages in ways that are reliable and are a first step towards fully documenting the authorship and content of these sites. Moreover, in Zotero you can save a snapshot of interesting websites to be used in your future research. It’s annotation on-the-go and I’ve recently begun to appreciate how important this particular feature of the program is to my work.

Let’s consider a website about a prayerwalk that was done across America in 2006 by Rick and Jane McKinney of Our Heart Ministries. As it happens, I was doing research on another walk, site A, when I came across a link to a related site that looked really interesting. Instead of the page I wanted I got a error message–broken link. That is, the destination of the link was no longer displaying the page I wanted.

Perhaps the authors took the site down. Or maybe they moved it and changed its name. Or maybe they stopped updating it and their host server removed their page. Who knows. It’s gone…. or is it?

Many of these sites are fleeting, which is not unusual. A recent article on history in the digital age at the BBC put the average lifespan of a website at 100 days (h/t John Fea). Thankfully, both this article and Zotero know that for some websites, the digital preservation site known as the Internet Archive or Way Back Machine may have stored a copy of the page as it used to be.

Walk to Reclaim AmericaIn this particular instance I was fortunate; my mysterious site was there. “Walk to Reclaim America,” the homepage for the McKinney’s journey, lives on in a server farm somewhere in the U.S. As you can see, the text and even some of the original images are available. But the Way Back Machine isn’t perfect. One of the three images in the main part of the first page is missing, as are all of the icons in the navigation bar. These are very small concessions, I think, when I would otherwise have access to this information.

[Note: Zotero seems to amplify this problem somewhat. Images that are available in the stored copy at the Way Back Machine are lost when one adds a snapshot of the page to your citation file. It’s surely something I can overcome, but the information that could be gained from an image could be valuable and it is time spent making sure that all the digital bits of a page are stored correctly and safely.]

One of the biggest issues for me, however, is the issue of preservation. Let’s say I want to publish articles about these sites in the future. It’s fairly likely I will do that. How can I provide reasonable access to them for others? Sure, the Internet Archive is public and others can find these sites easily enough. But relying on the goodwill of that site to preserve these forever seems short-sighted. The site is often down or has trouble connecting to its servers. Should I store a full digital copy of the site on my own to be added to my papers? [Yes.] Is there a library that would accept a digital submission? [Maybe.] USCB has a fine American Religions special collection, but how would they add a document like this? [I’m not sure.]

I want to protect myself but I am also concerned about access for others. As carefully as I cite these items, I can’t ensure that the target–the pages themselves–will be there for others to find. This troubles me because for so many generations historians have relied upon a steady and persistent chain of documentation and attribution. If I look in the back of most books I can be fairly certain that I will be able to find all of the secondary sources. I can be less certain, but I am still fairly sure that I would be able to go back to the primary sources, too. It is necessary for our collective enterprise.

In the digital age when authorship and ownership are harder to assign and documentation is only as reliable as the will of stewards to preserve the links in the chain, how can we take it for granted that someone else will pick up the slack on these items. Books naturally go into the archives, but where should these web pages go? How will they be organized and who will care for them? If I don’t do something to preserve them, will someone else?

Zotero and the Way Back Machine open the door for scholars to preserve these ephemera, but neither platform represents the place where the documents should ultimately reside. The Internet Archive should not need to be the archive where these items of importance for scholars of religion in America are cared for. My Zotero file is not a substitute for a library catalog with entries identifying these items. Instead, these resources cry out that we have yet to really wrestle with the problems of preserving our recent history and all of its particular expressions and forms. And I fear that if we don’t do something soon many of the moments from the last 20 years will be gone forever and we will have paid a steep price for failing to keep up with the times.

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