Law Librarian Corner: Using Perma to Preserve Web Content

By Michele Knapp, Reference Librarian

More and more, legal writing contains citations to online materials. This is the result of materials moving from print formats to the web and the prevalence of born-digital documents. Whether you are writing a seminar paper, an article for publication in a journal or a brief for moot court or practice, you are likely to include citations to online sources. But how do you know that the document to which you are citing will be located at the same link (also known as a URL) days, months or years later? The answer is you do not know.

Websites change frequently and sometimes disappear altogether. There are no guarantees that a website you visited yesterday will include the same content or even exist tomorrow. Newspaper articles, government publications and other documents move from one URL to another frequently, as well as get removed from the web. If you have spent much time online, you have likely encountered the following message or a version of it:

This is a common occurrence, one which you do not want to arise when a professor or judge is reading the paper or brief you just submitted. Whether a reader is trying to verify a citation or learn more about the topic at hand, they should be able to get to any online material cited in a single click. The ease of accessing this information should remain the same whether they are reading your work one day or ten years after it was written.

A recent Harvard study revealed that half of the URLs within U.S. Supreme Court opinions no longer work.[1] Upon an examination of URLs included in such journals as Harvard Law Review, the statistics were even more staggering – over 70% of the links did not work.[2] Another study conducted by librarians at the John Marshall School of Law led to similar results.[3] The New York Times publicized the results of these studies and helped start a conversation about the problem.[4] Perhaps, as a result of the wide-spread publicity, the U.S. Supreme Court took action and created a page on its website where online materials included in its opinions are available by term.[5] Although this is not an ideal fix, it is a start.

The Library Innovation Lab, located at Harvard Law School Library, came up with a better solution in Perma (found at https://perma.cc/). The service allows users to create permanent links to web content. With a Perma account, you can create an archive of online material so anyone can access the material at any time, even if the original website changes or goes away. Perma creates a permanent link to that material, which is accessible to anyone, even those without a Perma account. Libraries are the perfect partners in such an endeavor, because we are in the “forever” business.[6]

The USD Legal Research Center is a partner in Perma, which means that faculty, staff and students have free access to a Perma account. If you fall into one of those categories, it is likely that your work involves writing. It is not necessary that your writing be academic in nature to benefit from Perma. You may be in charge of updating a manual used by members of your department. You may provide students with a list of helpful career-related resources. Or you may be the leader of a campus organization that disseminates a newsletter. In any of these instances, you could use Perma to make sure online content referenced in your work is available to readers at any time. Even the editors of The Bluebook, a group known for being mired in the past, included a rule on the archiving of Internet sources in the 20th edition – Rule 18.2.1(d).

If you are interested in learning more about Perma or creating an account, contact the LRC Reference Department at lrcrefer@sandiego.edu or (619) 260-4612. We are available to provide training in the use of Perma for individuals or groups.

Michele Knapp is the LRC Reference & Interlibrary Loan Librarian, as well as the LRC liaison with the student journals and Legal Clinics. Wishing you could get your hands on an article or book that is not available at USD? Contact Michele, who will search the globe for the material you need. Michele practiced law as an Assistant Appellate Defender for the State of Illinois before changing careers. She loves to read, write and travel. She enjoys working in an academic environment, helping students and faculty tackle legal research questions.

[1] Jonathan Zittrain et al., Perma: Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations, 127 Harv. L. Rev. F. 176, 178 (2014).

[2] Id.

[3] Raizel Liebler & June Liebert, Something Rotten in the State of Legal Citation: The Life Span of a United States Supreme Court Citation Containing an Internet Link (1996-2010), 15 Yale J.L. & Tech. 273 (2013).

[4] Adam Liptak, In Supreme Court Opinions, Web Links to Nowhere, N.Y. Times, Sept. 25, 2013 at A13.

[5] Supreme Court of the United States, http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/Cited_URL_List.aspx (last visited October 19, 2015) [http://perma.cc/8L8T-RLYK].

[6] Perma.cc, https://perma.cc/about (last visited October 19. 2015) [https://perma.cc/RRM2-Q244].

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