UPDATE, Nov. 3, 2013: The good folks at the Maxwell Institute are aware of the website glitch (that’s my little euphemism for disaster) and are working on a fix (a few hours of adding redirects on their site ought to do it, in my opinion). The promise of a fix means this: “If you liked your links, you can keep them.” Now that’s a promise I hope we can trust. I think they won’t even need any superstars from Google for this little Mormon tech rally. And with luck, they won’t be getting any government help for their website. But if the fix can’t be done in a day or two, then it’s back to doom and gloom since I’ll need to spend a large chunk of my free time manually repairing all my links to articles on their website.
UPDATE 2, Nov. 4, 2013: Sigh. I must abandon hope for a swift fix. My contact at the Maxwell Institute has informed me that the project to fix the numerous broken links with redirects is a “massive project” that will take much longer than the day or two that I expected. I cannot understand this, but apparently things at BYU complex and difficult. I’ll still offer my humble suggestion that perhaps the old website can be resurrected until the knew one is ready to go live. But for now, I guess I need to start manually fixing links myself. Now that’s a massive project.
Just in time for Halloween, something frightening rises from the cyber crypts over at the Maxwell Institute, with vaults of extensive scholarship of much interest to defenders of the LDS faith. Great website, rich legacy, and lots of good people make it possible–but an eerie website “glitch” over there threatens to leave many without access to vital information, and is making at least one webmaster and blogger howl.
Thousands of people have been aided by various documents available there, especially the scholarship in a great LDS publication, The Review of Books on the Book of Mormon published by the Maxwell Institute, originally called The FARMS Review of Books. Defenders of the LDS faith have found some of the most useful information in the many pages of those volumes, where many scholars have reviewed and responded to anti-Mormon publications as well as neutral and pro-LDS books. This blog (Mormanity) and my website at JeffLindsay.com, especially the LDSFAQ area, have frequently found useful information at the Maxwell Institute and linked to it. Hundreds of links, actually. And now many have been broken in a puzzling redesign of MaxwellInstitute.com. It may be slicker in some ways, but if links are broken, it’s a serious problem.
Please, don’t break links to publications that many people use. [Again, they know this, of course, and are working on a fix. Wish it had been noticed though before the launch.]
Long ago the leaders at the Maxwell Institute (previous leaders) had expressed a commitment to keeping their online content available with links that would function even when the website was redesigned. They learned the importance of this over a decade ago when one of the early redesigns of their database caused links to break and forced webmasters like myself to manually repair broken links one at a time in a painful process. Many users explained the problem and we were relieved to hear that the leadership there was committed to never making such a mistake again. Well, here we go again.
The old Review is now hard to access, in my opinion. Trying to pull it up brings not a page about the review or anything that one would expect, but partial search results that show a few volumes, obviously with a bug in the sorting algorithm. The volume/issue data are presented in this order: 1/1, 2/1, 3/1, 4/1, 5/1, 6/1, 17/1, 20/1, 7/1, 7/2, and 8/1. Huh? What are volumes 17 and 20 doing between vol. 6, no. 1 and vol. 6, no. 2? Three of the four search results pages have similar oddities, with only the last page of results having things in proper order.
The real problem for me, though, is that past links to the content in the Review are now broken, and it isn’t obvious how to fix them. For example, on my LDSFAQ page on the Book of Abraham, I cite a 1992 article from John Gee in this way, but here showing my HTML:
John Gee, <“http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=4&num=1&id=92” target=”_blank”>A Tragedy of Errors</a>,” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Provo, Utah, 4 (1992): 93-119.
It looks like something like this when viewed in a browser:
But that link, which has been in place for over a decade and has been helpful to many people, now fails. Clicking on it simply takes a person to the publications page of the Maxwell Institute where readers will be puzzled to see a blurb promoting Mormon’s Codex (yes, a great book) but not the article they were looking for. The link is broken and there’s no clue how to get to John Gee’s article. A dedicated user can surmise that the “Review” link lower on the page should be pursued, and then can find volume 4 in the search results, and then can scroll down and see John Gee’s article is actually there, thankfully. The new URL for the HTML version of the article is: http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1427&index=15. The numbering system and the address convention is quite different than the previous now defunct URL, http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=4&num=1&id=92. That means a global search and replace won’t help, and a simple algorithm for revising the URLs won’t work. Lots of manual work (searching, copying, pasting) will be needed to fix the failed links. Aargh.
In the case I cited above, at least the failed link brought the user to a publications page where further searching or exploring could be done at the Maxwell Institute. It wasn’t a dead link, the kind that gives the dread 404 “page not found” error. Sadly, I wasn’t so lucky on the second Maxwell Institute link that I tested today. Again on my Book of Abraham page, I had a link to another article by John Gee. The link is to a 2007 article in PDF form. Here is the URL I have been using for years: http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/pdf.php?filename=MzAwOTM3NTgzNy0xOS0yLnBkZg==&type=cmV2aWV3
Lest you think the mistake may be mine and that this link never worked, you can verify that the link was correct by using Archive.org. See, for example, Archive.org’s 2009 archived document at that URL.
Painfully, the previous Maxwell Institute URL that is in place at the moment on my website now gives a disastrous 404 error. It’s the kind of error that Google and other search engines punish (having dead links with 404 errors is a cardinal sin, one that can lower your visibility in search results). It’s an error that loses credibility with readers and makes them give up on what could have been a meaningful exploration. A fundamental tenet of web design is that if you must make changes that remove pages or kill links, don’t let the reader be chased away with a “404 page not found” error, but with a custom 404 error page that redirects users to a useful page of some kind within the targeted domain. I’m shocked that many recently functioning links to Maxwell Institute pages will now give direct 404 errors.
If you must break links, don’t just surrender with a 404 error, but take the reader someplace useful. At least have a custom error page in place. Still not nearly as good as links that are properly redirected, but better than booting readers out into the cold.
I’m disappointed. But this problem can be fixed.