18.322 references and URLs

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 30 Oct 2004 09:49:45 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 322.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sat, 30 Oct 2004 09:43:45 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: references and URLs

I asked my question about URLs in a deliberately provocative way to get
some help thinking about the nitty-gritty practicalities of writing for a
medium in which space is often very limited. So I began to wonder if the
discrepancy between current doctrine and my own habitual way of finding
things online -- by means of Google and similar mechanisms, almost never by
recorded URL -- was telling me something important. I began to wonder if by
following that doctrine we are simply making ourselves feel comfortable, or
as comfortable as we can make ourselves feel under the circumstances,
rather than doing any kind of real service to our readers.

The Wayback Machine works by URL and date, and so by itself strongly
supports the recommended practice. I've used it, crucially to be able to
cite the entire run of the Recent Science Newsletter, which was deleted
without notice by George Washington University after the Center for the
History of Recent Science folded. Other universities may have more
enlightened policies and actually follow them, but this one incident
certainly made the point for me. But still the question remains.

What is a conventional bibliographic reference, really, to us? Ok, for some
of us, perhaps, it is a way of boasting or satisfying some requirement, for
example that in our proposals for papers we recognize other work in the
field. While working on my PhD dissertation I certainly discovered a number
of references that pointed to nothing. But functionally, in the ideal world
of responsible scholarship, the reference is a coded set of instructions
for finding an object. It may serve as a guarantee of authority, but mostly
it serves the purpose of allowing the interested person to investigate
further, and that is very important -- indeed sometimes more so than the
argument of the work making the reference. So, as far as I am concerned,
reference-making for actual use is central to scholarship. (Note the
qualification, "for actual use".)

For a manuscript or in certain special cases a printed book, the referenced
object is identical to the object that the person making the reference
actually used. Mostly, however, for a printed book this object is defined
within reasonable parameters to be "the same" as the object in question, so
that we can ignore the identity of the actual copy used, or even which
printing of the book. Most of us would want to know which edition, because
a new edition usually if not always means changes to the substance of the
book. In other words, a reference in such cases is designed on the basis of
the materiality of the object to which reference is made and the
vicissitudes that an object of its type is likely to suffer. In making such
a reference we compromise, agreeing tacitly by convention to ignore
accidents or deliberate damage to individual copies.

The materiality of a digital artifact is very different, the probable
vicissitudes very different. So much depends on the dynamic, temporally
contingent nature of the medium that a very different set of behaviours is
called for. I don't think that we have considered the matter thoroughly
yet. Rather our own behaviour suggests that we have made every effort to
make the digital medium conform to our prior conventions, and that when
difficulties arise we have ignored them -- except perhaps in what we
actually do, on our own, in practice. I think this actual behaviour is a
very much better guide than our beliefs or proclamations -- as long as this
behaviour in turn actually supports the work we do. You wouldn't want to
make a decision about where to live based on a city-dweller's opinion of
life in the country.

My own practice is as follows. When I see something online that I need or
suspect that I might need someday, I save a copy of it immediately on my
own machine, and I record all the bibliographic information I can discover
about it into a bibliographic management program (Library Master, as it
happens). I certainly do not rely simply on URL and date. When I read about
something that I think I must have the first thing I do is to attempt
finding it online. Quite often the supplied URL, if there is one, doesn't
work. (That "quite often" is highly subjective so shouldn't be trusted
except as a spur to care.) Almost always, however, I don't bother with the
URL but go for the resource via Google or some other such thing. (I should
be saying, perhaps, that I use "a google" or that "I google" the resource.)
I'd say that a good 90-95% of the time I find it. When the URL is very easy
to type or is simply clickable, I often google words from the title, the
author's name etc. to see what else I might pick up. Sometimes what results
is better than what I actually found.

Once I knew a very wise man, who taught Chinese and Mongolian at Toronto.
One of his favourite reference works was some Chinese encyclopedia, the
title of which I have forgotten. This encyclopedia did not have an index of
any kind, and of course did not have an alphabetical organization or
anything like that, so finding things was somewhat of a challenge. He told
me that one day he saw an advert for an index to it, done by some Western
scholars for their Sinologist colleagues. He said he was about to order it
but didn't. He realized then that in all the years of using this
encyclopedia he had quite often found far more interesting and
consequential items than those he had started out to find, and that if he
had this index he would likely succumb to the convenience and seldom if
ever again benefit from the serendipity of his wandering searches.

It seems to me that one of the most important practical skills we can teach
is how to find stuff online -- and of course how to determine what sort of
knowledge it affords about what. We should beware that all the
well-intentioned bumf about The Semantic Web does not cause us to defer
attention to what we can now do if only we know how to do it.



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Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
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Received on Sat Oct 30 2004 - 05:01:06 EDT

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