Publishers Preserve Websites, Readers Preserve Books
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Categories: Modern

Publishers Preserve Websites, Readers Preserve Books

If you come from book culture, the Internet and social media often work the opposite of the way you expect. One of these differences is that readers pay for preserving books, but publishers pay for keeping websites online.

If I publish a book and no longer like it, I can just let it go out of print. Everyone who already has a copy has a copy and can re-read it. Every citation still points to the same place in that physical object. While new readers will have trouble finding it, those who have already read it will have access as long as they are willing to pay to keep their copy in a dry place with even temperature. If I die, or run out of money, or get distracted with responsibilities, that book still circulates even though I can’t put in any more resources.

But if I publish a webpage, it is only up as long as I am willing to pay time and money to keep it online. That is not very much: a basic web host and domain name costs tens of dollars or Euros a year. But it still costs time and money, especially if its interactive or stored in a content management system. Dynamic sites are hard to maintain because the underlying software has to be kept up to date and because input has to be checked for things which the site owners do not want to host. Over the past few years, I have spent a considerable amount of time marking up links in old posts as links after WordPress started treating them as plain text. And come the next fire, flood, or Carrington Event, the website goes down. Even if it had millions of paying readers, they do not have their own copies unless they deliberately made one. As sites get more complicated and powered by databases, it gets harder and harder to make such a backup.

Being a freelance writer or artist is a desperately insecure trade. And writers are often attacked by a demon that whispers that their work is useless and nobody cares about it. So its very common that a writer runs out of money or feels like nobody values their work.

I think we have talked about how many people incorrectly think that cool URIs change. Most URLs are not stable enough to cite. But there is an even worse problem in that rights to a work and rights to a URL are separate. We have all seen how corporate platforms can mangle or delete users’ work at whim (or go out of business). This is not the only problem. In 2021, the University of Tulsa decided to remove its staff and faculty web hosting. In doing that, they took down I. Marc Carlson’s very useful webpages on medieval footwear and clothing. The Internet Archive has backed them up, but the University of Tulsa could tell them to remove that backup and they would comply. We know that readers would have been willing to pay the USD 1,000 or so which it would have cost to keep those pages up at the original URL indefinitely, because readers are porting them to a new site (when I learn where that is I will add a link here). But it was the University of Tulsa which decided whether keeping the site up and links pointing to it was important, because they own the domain.

If I have a website, take it down, and wish to put it up again, I may well find that someone else has bought the domain. Citations to my page will point to whatever they put there. A bored billionaire could buy up a link-redirect service and change all the links to rickroll users, and that would be his privilege. Josho Brouwers’ Ancient World Magazine is going down at the end of June 2022, and when it goes down, there will be no way to redirect visitors to the same article on his new site unless he keeps paying for the old domain and basic web hosting and puts in the time to redirect the URLs from the old site to the new one.

One of the reasons that we will have to replace the current Internet is that its not stable enough to build an industrial civilization around. Its more like early China, Mesopotamia, and Judah where texts were unstable and unattributable. Every city had its own set of sign lists, every scholar had their own version of Sun Tzu, and every few kings the word of the Lord in the Temple changed. And one of the reasons why texts on the Internet are unstable is who pays for what. Readers pay to preserve books, but publishers pay to preserve websites. Common sense and thousands of years of experience tell us that the first approach was more reliable.

Further Reading: Exegi monumentum vitro fragilius (2014)

PS. On 10 May I learned that I. Marc Carlson is dying of liver failure in the United States. His friends and family have a GoFundMe at https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-for-marc-carlson-aka-diarmait-ua-dhuinn

2 thoughts on “Publishers Preserve Websites, Readers Preserve Books

  1. Richard Bejtlich says:

    Great comment. This is why I spent time during Covid publishing four books based on my blog. I selected the best 10% or so (about 300 of over 3,000 posts), added commentary, and published them (and other papers only on the Web or in a private collection). I’m trying to donate copies to libraries so they will be a resource for future historians.

    1. Sean says:

      One challenge on the web is that we often post things of short-term interest next to things which might be interesting to more people for longer. Thoughts on the latest blockbuster have a different life cycle than a fix for some estoeric Linux issue, but they often end up on the same forums, blogs, and social media accounts.

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