Fragile Content: Link Rot and Information Hoarding

Confession: I’m an information hoarder. If I see something interesting on the internet, I’ll often download it, make a note, or save a link. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever.

About 10 years ago I used Evernote to keep track of things. I had daily lists and saved notes on all sorts of stuff. Over time I moved away from Evernote, going to Joplin and a few other tools, settling in with Emacs org-mode for a few years, and moving to Obsidian, where I am today. And much like the box that’s gone through several moves unopened, my Evernote notes came right along as a folder of markdown files.

404s A-Plenty

However, the magpie hoard of links and notes once considered valuable seems to have succumbed to the passage of time. The other day I started organizing my Obsidian vault. Having tags and links will make my thinking clearer, I thought. So I started looking through my Evernote archive. And quickly I found that many of the links I saved now went nowhere. Pages disappeared, sites no longer existed, etc. Some links were still alive, and text notes obviously survived intact (which is another topic to consider later). But many were just gone.

This is bad enough with a knowledge base. Like many people I’ll save something because I think I might find it useful later. Of course I also end up not using it later (also like many other people). But there’s still the chance that I might want it later and not be able to use it.

Fire Up the Wayback Machine… or Don’t?

So what can we do? I could go search the Wayback Machine to see if I can find links. That might help for long-lost links that might be useful. But that can be tedious and depends on the Wayback Machine staying operational. Something that is not guaranteed. The solution going forward is saving the actual information I want and not just a link to it. Whether that means taking notes, making a screenshot, or capturing a page as an html file or pdf, having the file locally makes the information more durable. If a website operator takes a page down or changes the website’s structure, I’ll still have the information. Not to mention I have what I want even if I don’t have an internet connection.

A New (Old) Way to Hoard Data

I’ve already started doing this with recipes. My wife will send a recipe to make for dinner. If it seems like something we might cook again, I’ll print the recipe as a pdf and save it in Dropbox. Now if the recipe website dies or Pinterest goes away, I still have it. And I can already hear concerns about relying on Dropbox, but I sync everything to a local drive and make backups.

So now what? I’m changing my approach to saving information going forward. But now I have a bunch of notes to go through. And it might just be time to let some notes go, even if they still work. Because that’s another side of all this: not every bit of information you save is actually useful.