Rick Perlstein’s Link Rot

I am a big fan of Rick Perlstein. I love his Nixonland, not least for the way it changed the way I think about midterm elections, and I look forward to reading The Invisible Bridge.

I feel sorry that Perlstein must waste even a moment dealing with the absurd charges of copyright infringement presented by Craig Shirley, an author who apparently has no understanding of either copyright law or the norms of scholarship. Shirley’s claims could be sillier only if he sued for “$2,0000,000,000 (two trillion dollars).”

That said, I share Shirley’s frustration with the decision by Perlstein and his publisher, Simon and Schuster, not to include the footnotes in the printed text of The Invisible Bridge . Instead, Perlstein has posted the notes only on his website.

Yes, it sounds like a good idea. As John K. Wilson writes, “Online citations are a perfectly legitimate means of sourcing—in fact, Perlstein’s approach is superior to conventional footnoting because it allows readers to click on many of his sources and read the original work themselves, which is hardly the tactic of a plagiarist.”

The problem is that such citations can vanish quickly. Consider, in particular, this claim at the start of the Notes section of Nixonland: “A continually updated hypertext version of these notes will be available at my Web site, rickperlstein.org, so that readers, wherever possible, can explore Nixonland‘s source materials on their own.” (p. 750) Now try to find that “continually updated hypertext version” at rickperlstein.org. It isn’t there, at least not anywhere I could find it.

The printed edition of Nixonland includes the notes, so the disappearance of an electronic version of those notes isn’t a disaster for that book. But since the online notes are the only version of the references supporting The Invisible Bridge, their disappearance would greatly diminish the value of an important work.

I faced this challenge on a smaller level myself, when I learned that for production reasons, it would be impossible to incorporate footnotes to a new preface into the existing notes for The Great Society Subway. Fortunately, the wonderful librarians at George Mason University offered to host an electronic version of the notes for the preface to the paperback edition of my book. I am confident that the Mason Archival Repository Service will be serving data long after zacharyschrag.com has expired.

I suggest, then, that Perlstein not rely on his own website, but instead archive copies of the footnotes with libraries that are committed to preserving digital scholarship.

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