Why 404 Errors Have the Power to Traumatise – Nicola Laurent

Hello from Australia! I’m Nicola, a Project Archivist at the eScholarship Research Centre (ESRC), University of Melbourne. My role is not one of a traditional archivist but instead involves a diverse range of tasks covering everything from data entry and editing, communications, research and presenting at conferences, with all work being underpinned by archival principles. I am lucky enough to be able to develop my skill set while working on an incredible project – the Find & Connect web resource.

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Nicola Laurent

This project is a government-funded initiative to provide information for people who grew up in out-of-Home care in Australia from the beginning of the last century. The website was part of a suite of Find & Connect programs funded by the Australian Government after the 2009 Apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants by the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

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Find and Connect web resource homepage

This apology was in response to recommendations of two inquiries in the Australian Senate into the past treatment of vulnerable children and families: the ‘Forgotten Australians’ inquiry into institutional care in Australia (2004), and the ‘Lost Innocents’ report (2001) about child migration from Britain and Malta.

As in the UK and Northern Ireland, in recent years Australia has seen several inquiries into child sexual abuse within institutions, including a Royal Commission which will hand down its final report in December of this year (2017). These inquiries have highlighted the importance of archives and records to provide evidence, enable enquiry, support redress schemes, and the significant value of archival records to the people that were in the institutions.

The Find & Connect website is an online knowledge base that includes over 17,000 pages of information, including entries about children’s homes, orphanages, care provider organisations, laws, policies and key events. The website contains links to photos, newspaper articles, reports and many other published and online resources. More importantly, Find & Connect documents what archival records exist, where they are located, the access conditions for the records and contact details to access them.

For people who spent time in out-of-Home care, the records can be vital to help them piece together their life story. The historical context can help people to make meaning of their life, to interpret the records about their time in care, and to understand their history and identity.

The website is created from nine Microsoft Access databases – the ESRC’s Online Heritage Resource Manager – and it is within these databases that I spend a lot of my time. A regular and somewhat painstaking task I complete for Find & Connect is to run a broken links check and then manually replace the links that are broken within the databases. It is a time consuming process and the main question people ask me is whether it’s worth it – why bother ‘wasting’ your time on repairing broken links?

Yes, it’s tedious and time-consuming, but I honestly believe that there is a lot of value in this work. In fact, my experience on Find & Connect has led to my research interest in advocating for sustainable access to online material through the digital preservation of links and promoting the issue of content drift (which sounds a lot better than ‘fixing broken links’). This work is important and, as archivists, record keepers, and information professionals, we need to be leading the charge in creating a sustainable Internet environment.

Everyone who uses the web has come across a 404 error when a website has a link to a page that no longer works. Most people would agree that these broken links are annoying, frustrating and inconvenient. But there is a need to think about the broader impact of broken links: how broken links diminish access to and openness of information, and how they can erode trust. Everyone – but particularly information professionals – should care about broken links and Find & Connect highlights why.

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404 Errors from library and archives websites.

Broken links have the power to re-traumatise.

 “That’s what we have been coming up with all our lives (no information)”

 “Can’t do this!”

 “Links have got to go where they say they are going. (Not to other pages or are broken)”

 “Are they trying to hide something? I’ve been led astray!”

These are all quotes from usability testing undertaken on the website back in 2011 and 2012. When members of our primary audience (Care Leavers, or people who lived in institutions as children) see a broken link, different thoughts come up … trust is broken. ‘The Government must be hiding something. They never want to tell us the truth.’

If there is no way to create a direct, permanent link to the content, the open access nature of the record is minimised, prompting the question, ‘did the content mean anything in the first place?’ When that content is a State-based apology to former State Wards, or information on how Care Leavers can access their records, this IS important and there should be no need to take that information down EVER. This history needs to be known and when links are broken, we are seen as effectively trying to brush it under the carpet.

I’ve read articles where it is argued that broken links are part of the natural life cycle of the web, but to that I whole-heartedly disagree. The majority of the time the content has not been taken down, but instead moved to a new URL.

So while I won’t stop fixing them, I’m also advocating for a change of thinking around broken links, because they can have a huge impact on vulnerable people. They are important and as information professionals we should care about what it does for access, trust and openness of information.

Thank you to those who have read this far! For a light-hearted ending to a serious topic view the ‘film trailer’ created from my Australian Society of Archivists conference presentation on the topic last year ‘Nicola Destroys the 404’.

Nicola can be reached at:

nicola.laurent@unimelb.edu.au

@NicolaCLaurent

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