I noted with some anxiety last week that my many hundreds of links to archived articles, books, and other scholarly materials at the Maxwell Institute (mi.byu.edu) all became dead as the site went down for several days. A tragedy for the Institute and its fans and users in a world where dead servers and dead links are sorely punished by Google and other search engines. I contacted the Maxwell Institute and learned that they were down for a while to prepare for a new, improved website.
“Improved” is an adjective that increasingly causes anxiety in my life. Blame it on age and a failure to adapt, but over the years I’ve noted that what many marketers, politicians, bureaucrats, doctors, and others tout as “improvements” can be serious steps backwards. Improved packaging with 30% less food for the same price; improved software that is now slower and less functional, improved health care plans that costs twice as much and cover less, etc. I am walking today because as I was being prepped for surgery to “repair” and “improve” a damaged meniscus in my knee, I heard a clue from the surgeon’s assistants indicating that the real plan was to simply remove my meniscus. “Remove? The surgeon said he would repair it.” “Repair, remove — it’s actually much easier for us to just remove it.” (This was in China, but a similar need for caution applies to America’s increasingly frustrating health care system, which actually lacks much of the freedom and flexibility we have in China.) I got up and walked before they could impose their improvements on me, and am still walking vigorously today, five years later. Incidentally, I learned a valuable tip for medical success in China from a physical therapist friend that day: to see if you really need surgery, take your records (an MRI in my case) to another surgeon and say that you are going to go back to America to get surgery if it’s needed, and all you are paying them to do is to give you an opinion: do you need surgery or not? I did that and quickly learned that physical therapy actually was all I needed. After one session with my friend, my knee was 80% better, and after a few more it was pretty much back to normal.
So when I heard that the Maxwell Institute was improving their website, in a surgical move so big and bold that it required roughly a week of anesthesia before it could be awakened again, my doubting heart sank. Why? Partly because I’ve been burned several times before when the Maxwell Institute revamped their website and broke every single link to archived material like FARMS publications, the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Insights, etc. My LDSFAQ website and my Mormanity blog link to hundreds of articles and free books there, and changing those links by hand, as I’ve had to do four or five times already, is an exhausting chore. I don’t want to do it again and had been told previously by the Maxwell Institute that it was now stable and that they understood how important it was to preserve links and not break everything again. Could it possibly be the case that this improvement would break links again, and force my to once again search for the archived materials at the Maxwell Institute with new URLs? “Stay calm, Jeff, I’m sure everything will be fine. And improved.”
After several inquiries to a variety of people that I thought would know, I heard from the Maxwell Institute and gradually determined that yes, indeed, all links would be broken (and now are broken) — and not because the material was being given new URLs at the Institute, but because it was being removed from their website altogether. Ouch!
I recognize that the Institute is small and funding is limited. What they can do is subject to requirements and constraints from BYU, high turnover in staff, shifting programs and priorities from changes in leaders and guidance from outside stakeholders, etc., and sometimes things just have to be revamped. But through it all, there is a legacy that needs to be preserved, in my opinion.
Fortunately, there was an effort to move that data to the Harold B. Lee Library’s website, the BYU Scholars’ Archive (https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/), where I figured I can now poke around and gradually find everything myself once again. So, tragic and frustrating as the change was, I was relieved to know that it was all somewhere, safe and sound, for what would now surely be a final solution.
Unfortunately, this solution, like too many improvements in the world, was not quite as successful as hoped. I soon realized that the Scholars Archive was not archiving the readable, somewhat mobile-friendly HTML files that the Institute had for most of its publications. Rather, it’s a PDF-only world at Scholars Archive, not very easy for mobile users especially, making information harder to read, find, and search. Speaking of search, the search engine is pretty poor, in my opinion, and brings far too many unrelated hits. It’s now much harder to find things than in the past, IMO. HTML files aren’t the only loss. The FARMS Insights publication is no longer there, but someone at the Maxwell Institute said they are looking for ways to bring it back. Hope it will be back soon. But there are deeper problems that cropped up with just a few minutes of probing.
At the Scholars’ Archive, a search for publications by John Sorenson (not easy to do with their limited interface, far inferior to what the Institute offered — but after finding some of his articles, I found a hyperlink under the title on some individual pages for him as an author) reveals that the new site has 36 links for material from John Sorenson. However, looking at the old Institute website using Archive.org, by going to the Authors page and then clicking on John Sorenson, I see this page of results with 4 books, 28 book chapters, 32 journal articles, 5 transcripts, and 1 multimedia (video) presentation. The 36 links in the new site represent a tad more than 50% of the 70 links in the old. Clearly the new site is not capturing everything.
How about Hugh Nibley, one of the fathers of intellectual defense of the LDS faith? At the old Maxwell Institute page for Hugh Nibley as an author, I see 24 books, 12 book chapters, 53 articles, 36 transcripts, and 17 multimedia presentations, a total of 142 links to some of the most fascinating material from a true giant in faith and scholarship. How does the new website do? The Scholars Archive proudly touts a whopping 46 links to Hugh Nibley’s material. The new site has 46 of the 142 Nibley items from the prior Maxwell Institute site — that’s about 32%, less than one third of what used to be there. Am I missing something? Some of the 142 may have been duplicates, like individual chapters in addition to the overall book listed, but it still seems like a problem. Am I searching improperly or missing extra links? Are there some secret Easter egg features that bring out the full Nibley? I really hope this is just another case of stupid user error. Here’s hoping that I’m just being stupid once again! Please, make my day, expose my stupidity and show me that BYU hasn’t let a lot of great data from the Maxwell Institute’s past slip into oblivion. Yes, I realize that much of it may be recoverable on Archive.org. But that doesn’t provide the visibility and ease of access that the world needs (and it’s not accessible in China, while BYU.edu is, for one minor thing).
As for that search engine, it really needs revision. Perhaps just adding Google search features would work? For example, knowing that the old website had Nibley’s book, Mormonism and Early Christianity, I thought I would find it on the new. I entered the title in quotes and expected to see it pop up at the first hit. An exact match of the title in any basic search engine should be given top priority. But In the first 25 hits displayed, there wasn’t even anything with the word “Mormonism” showing up in the results. On the second page of hits, hit number 43 of 44, Nibley’s book finally made its debut. It’s not the ultimate search engine — but maybe it’s the penultimate.
Wading through lots of seemingly unrelated hits to find an exact match at the end is not a winning strategy for user friendliness and visibility in my opinion, but I’m not a programmer nor an SEO expert. Had I programmed it, I’m sure I’d see the beauty and power of its diversity. But for now, I think we have a problem. Precious archived materials are hard to find for those who know exactly what to look for. They are harder to read, harder to browse, and in terms of Internet visibility, they’ve just been killed. I know, I know, it’s an improvement, be grateful.
Here’s hoping that the Maxwell Institute can regenerate a mirror site (I know, this will require additional funding and perhaps volunteer time, but it’s still on my wish list) for their historic website and provide redirects so that all former links take you to the mirror site (a site with the original HTML files, multimedia files, Insights newsletters, and every article, chapter and transcript that used to be part of the Maxwell Institute), or at least ensure that all historic material is properly archived at the new site and that all currently broken links will automatically redirect to the proper place at the new site. That would be seem like a good move if it were possible. I’ve been told that they have limited resources making it hard to do this kind of thing.
Update, 6/27/2019: Navigation Trouble
In the old website, it was relatively easy to find publications such as the FARMS Review of Books and then it was easy to navigate to different volumes arranged nicely by date. It’s much harder to find things at the new website. For example, when you see a link to “Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 1989–2011,” you would expect that clicking on it will take you to a list of the various volumes from 1989 to 2011, when there was a transition to the name Mormon Studies Review. So much of the great content from the early days of the Maxwell Institute was in that 1989 to 2011 era, so I hope it’s possible to browse it. But when I click on that link on various pages I’ve encountered, it always takes me to the first and I think only volume of Mormon Studies Review, labeled as vol. 23, no. 1 (after 22 volumes under previous titles).
It turns out there is a way to see the expected list of older volumes that I think people will miss. You have to click on text to the right that says “All issues” right below “Select an issue.” Since “All issues” is showing, one would expect that all issues are being displayed, but not here. You have to click on that button to see a dropdown list of the issues, and then select one. Note that the year is not shown. Choosing the volume doesn’t do anything, as I might expect. One then has to click on “browse.” Then that volume comes up, and if your eyes are good at reading tiny font, you can see the year listed near the upper parts of the screen and links to the articles as PDF files below (again, none of the more accessible HTML files).
If you start at the page for Maxwell Institute publications, there’s no hint that you can browse it’s past publications. When you click on the “collections” button, it brings up a long list that includes mostly things unrelated to the Maxwell Institute, except for a link back to the Maxwell Institute page you came from. But you can find past journals if you already know what they are by clicking on Collections > All Journals and then overlooking many unrelated links to select either “Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 1989–2011” (which takes you back to vol. 23 again) or “Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.” Nothing about transcripts, multimedia, Insights, and some other items from old days. For someone interested in exploring the past archives of the Maxwell Institute, the interface for browsing just isn’t worth much, IMO, though it pains me to say that because I’m sure great people worked hard to build this general tool that serves as a general way to archive stuff. It’s just not a great way to browse and explore information the way a specialty website like the old MI site was. That’s why a library’ archive system is not a suitable replacement for what I believe the Maxwell Institute’s site was once meant to be: a light to the world that could help those interested in learning more about the Gospel to find and enjoy valuable scholarly material. There are still photons there, but it takes a lot of effort to release them from their new vault. Which brings me now to an update on the search issue.
Further Search Engine Trouble
Actually, every search I’ve tried at the new site has disappointed me. If pinpoint precision for authors and titles cannot bring up the targeted article near the top of a list of results, the manual creation of new links will be more tedious than ever before. My latest target was an article by James Gee, “The Nahom Maps,” that was published in the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Restoration Scripture 17/1–2 (2008): 40–57. I began with a search in the Maxwell Institute area for James Gee. There were 14 hits, none of which had any “Gee” as an author or “Gee” in the title. In fact, the word “James” didn’t even show up in the names or titles. This is a very unique search engine!
Next up was searching for “Nahom Maps” without quotes. I know, an overly difficult challenge, but hopefully a broad search to bring up lots of interesting relevant material since I know that Nahom and maps have been discussed many times in historic publications at the Maxwell Institute. The result was one of the most surprising: just two hits, and neither had “Nahom” nor “maps” showing up on the page. So strange! Since you may find that unfathomable, here’s the screenshot:
Impressive! In the interest of national security, I feel obligated to report this to the CIA and FBI because this tool could help keep our national secrets hidden from nefarious foreign powers.
It looks secure, but a persistent hacker might try something with pinpoint precision like, “James Gee” + “Nahom Maps” in quotes to force a direct hit on what must be some kind of vital religious secret. Wonderfully, the sensitive Gee data remained secure! Zero hits! Take that, Russia!
I tried other permutations: no quotes for James Gee, or just Gee alone, but this still gave a secure zero hits. Even the broad, inviting search of Gee and Nahom (no quotes) just returned one hit, but fortunately completely free of any hint of a security leak leading to the protected Gee/Nahom Map file. A proud day for cybersecurity, but a frustrating day for a lowly webmaster hoping to fix unnecessarily broken links to valuable resources.
It is only when there are zero hits that the web page displays the search term that was applied, a feature which makes it difficult to refine failed searches when there are a lot of garbage hits.
Unfortunately for the apparent cybersecurity initiative behind the new website archiving some portion of the Maxwell Institute’s historic materials, I was able to hack my way to the James Gee article through a security flaw in the interface. Returning to the home page for the M.I. materials at the Scholars Archive, I found a subtle security flaw in the form of an “Authors” button under the “Browse” area which, with a simple exploit commonly known as “clicking” in hacker jargon, caused author name data from a database to be dumped in one massive, slow-loading file listing all the hundreds of names of record for authors. Ha hah! Then scrolling deep into the file, I found the name “James Gee” — completely unencrypted! — well, only weakly encrypted as “Gee, James”, which I readily decrypted and then performed the same exploit on the associated link. Bingo! Suddenly I was past the wall and had full access to one of the best protected files I’ve encountered in a long time, the James Gee article, “The Nahom Maps,” (for direct access to the secure PDF, click here). This is a file feared by our critics and perhaps by some of our friends. Surely there is treasure there to be found, and it’s high time I start digging before NSA hunts me down.
Sorry for so much nitpicking. Good people with limited resources under adverse circumstances may be doing their best to manage these challenges, but there is loss and pain nonetheless. The numerous files removed from the MI site are important and need to be more visible, available, and protected. Here’s hoping that improved search can be added, missing files can be restored, and — perhaps too wishful on my part — that the previous links can be fixed so they each redirect to the new site, if the original files just can’t be preserved at the MI site anymore.