by Ashley Ahlbrand
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problems facing modern scholarship. Last October, Sara Sampson and I presented at the ORALL Annual Meeting about two of these problems specifically pertaining to the fact that research today is often conducted primarily electronically. Sara introduced the concept of citation translation. Even though much of modern legal research is now conducted electronically, the Bluebook still prefers citation to print. As a result, we go through a seemingly unnecessary process of authors and cite-checkers translating citations for materials likely used online to their print format, per Bluebook standards. Readers then re-translate those citations back to an electronic format for their own research purposes. Why not update the rules of citation to reflect modern practices?
Following Sara’s presentation, I discussed the increasing rate of citation to online-only materials (blogs, websites, etc.) and the corresponding trouble with link rot. I shared with the audience my experience in introducing my institution to Perma.cc as a solution to this particular problem.
Fortunately, these two issues have solutions: change the rules of citation, use a web archiving system to preserve your citations.
Most recently, I’ve been mulling over another problem with scholarship: “on file with author.” I have spent the past couple of months trying to track down a particular document for a student, not for research purposes, but simply for personal interest. It’s a rather obscure document, and we didn’t have a lot of information to go on, but after conferring with colleagues from another state (you have to love the fellowship of law librarians!), we managed to find a book that referenced and quoted the document, noting that is was on file with the author. I’m sure you know how this story ends. I reached out to the author to see if he still had the document, and he responded that unfortunately, no, he regularly disposes of his files and no longer has the document. To be honest, I may have been more crushed by this news than the student was. Like many librarians, I absolutely hate having to say “no” to someone when they come to me for research assistance, but this was a decidedly dead end. How dissatisfying. “On file with author” is not quite the research stronghold one would hope.
This problem is not new. It has probably happened to many of you, and it is certainly not a problem unique to modern scholarship. But I believe there are any number of modern solutions. Cloud storage would allow an author to maintain all documents she has acquired for her research without the physical space obstacles. I would advocate this for print documents as well as electronic since a scanned version of the original is better than none at all. If the author is writing for a journal, she could offer up the “on file” documents to the journal for safekeeping and retention purposes. Some journals do this already. The most obvious answer to me, of course, is look to the library! It is in our nature to preserve rather than destroy, and with everything from cloud storage to digital repositories at our disposal, there are any number of archiving solutions we can offer.
Of course, it’s not always as simple as an author giving untold numbers of files to a journal or library willy-nilly. For ethical or legal purposes, the author may need to impose restrictions on who may request these documents, necessitating the creation of a dark archive or stringent access policies. This is where, again, I would recommend libraries as optimal stewards for this particular service, as many of us have such policies in place already for existing portions of our collections and have the knowledge and staff necessary to successfully and efficiently care for such materials. [Author note: If your library already provides a service like this, I would love to hear about it. Please email me at email@example.com.]
Each of these three scholarship problems I’ve mentioned – citation translation, link rot, and “[not necessarily] on file with author” – revolves around the same common use of scholarship: expanding one’s own research through access to cited materials. And none of these problems are a product of malice – the author throws out files because he doesn’t need them anymore or he needs to make room for more; the website owner takes down her blog post or reorganizes her website because the information has changed or makes better sense if organized in a different way. In other words, the author and website owner just don’t have the same preservation goals that scholarship requires.
Unfortunately, though, the result is the same. If the citation is to the print and you only have access to electronic, you’re stuck tracking the material down electronically without much help from the citation. If the citation is to a rotten link, you’re stuck combing through the existing website, hoping the material has been moved to another page, or combing the Internet for an archived version of the page. If the citation is “on file with author,” you are left hoping that author keeps good records.
It seems like lately I’m always hearing people say that libraries are in a good position to help out with X or Y. In the area of scholarship preservation, it is no less true. Libraries are poised to lead the way in preserving cited material. While we cannot unwind the clocks and recover those broken links or materials that are not-so-on file with author, we can work prospectively to ensure that future cited materials do not get lost to time.