Records and information management FAQs – Deciding why, when and how to capture the content of links August 31, 2015

The Library of Congress recently posted some information on strategies being used to manage ‘link rot’ and ‘reference rot’. As described in the post, these terms refer to the problem of hyperlinked web addresses that fail to lead the reader to the desired content, either because the link is rotten (not working at all) or because the content has been modified or changed. This has implications for the long-term integrity of web-based scholarly records.

We have been thinking about links here at State Records too, although from a different angle: when do you need to make a record of the content that is being linked to?

We recently received an enquiry about the circumstances in which an organisation would need to capture the contents of links included in email messages. Of course, this question also applies to other record formats, including social media, web pages, documents – indeed any record that includes a link to another resource.

Is it sufficient to capture the record containing the links to a recordkeeping system, or do organisations also need to capture the content of the linked resource?

And the answer, as often seems to be the case these days, is ‘it depends’!

Records often contain links. These might point to a page on a public website or an organisation’s intranet, or to a file saved in the organisation’s recordkeeping system, content management system or network drive.

In terms of email messages, it is often considered best practice to use links instead of attachments. For example, the National Archives of Scotland advises:

Users… can also reduce the size of emails by avoiding sending attachments to multiple recipients. For documents which require wider circulation or distribution, ‘publish and point’ procedures should be followed. Instead of attaching the document to an email message, which will provide each recipient with an individual copy, a version of the document should be placed on the EDRM, intranet or shared workspace. Recipients can then be directed to retrieve the document by including a pointer or link in an email message, which will lead the recipient to the master version. Distributing documents in this way helps encourage a culture of information sharing within your organisation. It also reduces the number of working copies of documents in disparate user folders, while the performance of the corporate network will be improved by avoiding the unnecessary transmission of large attachments.

And as part of our own practices here at State Records, we often include links to the published advice on our website when we respond to enquiries from public offices.

So why and when might you want to keep a record of the contents of linked resources?

We have published some advice about keeping information about the content of links in social media posts. Much of this advice is also relevant when considering whether to capture the contents of links in email messages, documents and other types of records.

As this advice notes, it comes down to the nature of the business being undertaken and the risks associated with that business. For example:

  • If an email message or Facebook post includes a link to published advice, is there an ongoing need to be able to account for the advice provided? This is particularly important if the published advice is subject to regular change or updating.
  • If an employee receives an email message containing a link to a published resource, do they need to make and keep a copy of the resource? If they make a business decision based on the content of that resource, and are not reasonably confident that the resource will continue to be available for as long as they may need to account for their decision, the answer could be ‘yes’.

To decide whether you might want to keep a record of the contents of linked resources, you could ask the following questions:

  • Is the content of the linked resource essential to the record’s meaning?
  • Is the content of the linked resource of high value to your organisation?
  • Is the linked resource likely to be available online for as long as you might need to refer to it?
  • Is the linked resource protected and secured in a recordkeeping system? Or is it kept in a less protected and secure place, such as a network drive?

How might you keep a record of the contents of linked resources?

Going back to the example above of State Records’ own practices when it comes to responding to enquiries, we have identified that we need to be able to account for the advice that we provide. This means that when we refer an enquirer to published advice on our website using links, we need to be able to prove what the enquirer would have read if they clicked on the link.

We manage this by keeping records of the advice published on our website, including when it was changed or updated and how. This enables us to identify and reproduce the advice that would have been available on our website when we responded to the enquiry.

For links to external websites, your organisation might identify a need to capture content on a case by case basis.

Remember, each organisation needs to assess its own needs for records and then implement appropriate recordkeeping strategies. This is a requirement of the Standard on Records Management, and will ensure that records support business operations and accountability requirements.

We are always keen to hear your thoughts on our FAQs, so please leave a comment below or contact us.

Photo credit: William Warby – “Indian Peacock” (CC BY 2.0)
One Comments
Emma Harris September 28th, 2015

Our colleague Janet Villata from City of Sydney contacted us with these comments on this post:

It is true, in the interests of preventing duplication or promoting a ‘single source of truth’ links are being encouraged, but as you pointed out they do have a cost. In some cases, you can accept broken links, but in others you need to do something about it.
In a related vein, if working with SharePoint, issues with links are all the more reason to push the importance of a unique ID. Some organisations think that’s old fashioned EDRMS nonsense, but without an ID the file path becomes the link people send around to the document. If you change any part of that file path, including renaming your document, or you move the document, links are broken.
While we can debate the importance of some of the minimum metadata rules, unique ID is a pretty good one to stick with forever and ever AMEN!

Thanks Janet!

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