Friday, 13 January 2017

Erudite Erasure

What has happened to our libraries? Are they really surviving in the digital world? These are not new questions, but I want to add some personal insights and experiences.

Figure 1 - Evaporating libraries.[1]

During my teens, I spent many hours in the central library of Nottingham, in England. I would get down there after school and remain there, reading and taking notes, until closing time. I would then return home on the bus, clutching a stack of books and a bag of chips (that’s “fries” to my American friends). The driving force was a curiosity about certain subjects in physics and mathematics that were too far above my pay-grade for either my teachers or my school library to help.

In those days, the term “local library” actually meant something as each suburb usually had its own branch library, although they wouldn’t have held the specialised material that I needed, and hence the need for me to take a 30-minute bus ride into the city. Since that time, funding cuts and general lack of attendance have meant job cuts and the closure of many branches. Also, that original central library building (built in 1881, on Shakespeare Street) was taken over by the Nottingham Trent University, and the central library moved to a different location on Angel Row. That more-modern nondescript building never seemed to carry the same authority as the original one, and there are plans to move it yet again.

I still use that library, but for an entirely different purpose. As my subject of interest now includes local history, I often access their local studies department, either in person — when I’m in the area — or through the Internet, or by telephone. The staff are always very helpful, and they’ve performed numerous searches on my behalf.

One of the resources I frequently accessed through their Web site was the Gale database of ‘19th Century British Library Newspapers’; all this required was my UK library card. Some time ago, this resource was taken down by the Nottingham library. At the time, I was told that it had been replaced by online access to the British Newspaper Archive (BNA), except that this was only accessible from the library premises! This was incredibly stupid as it barely qualified as “online” at all, and I was extremely angry. If I had some disability then it may have been too onerous to take that trip into the city each time I needed access. As it was, my physical location was rather fluid — hopping between countries — and so it was impractical for me, too.

Even if I could have called in, I specifically wanted access to the Gale database as it covered additional newspapers, and it offered advanced search operators that made complex searches much easier and reliable than using BNA. I tried a number of other English libraries but the same story was told by most — maybe it was all about money, or old-style book-loan thinking, or the hard sell from BNA.

So what was the story with the other libraries that did still host this Gale database? Well, things got a little farcical there. Both Bristol and Derbyshire claimed that the “licensing agreement” with the publisher meant that I had to “live, work, or study” in that area. Well, “live” and “work” are easy to define, but what does “study” mean? Does it mean attending some local educational establishment, or performing research in the area, or performing research of the area? Several of my articles are more historical than genealogical, and relating to multiple towns including my home town, so they stood to benefit from my research. In fact, I had already given a number of my blog links to the Nottingham library. This really makes a mockery of doing research in a digital world since your physical location should not be important for access to Web resources.

Our library cards do not actually say “UK” on them, and they are issued by the central library of the respective district. In fact, the card numbers are not even uniform, and I was told that there are at least three independent systems managing them. Effectively, I was only a member of the libraries in the county — or sometimes a consortium of neighbouring counties — that issued my card, and of no others. Each district decides on the online resources it will host, but I am not free to join just any library as I must have an address in that area. This chaos also used to mean that I could not loan a book directly from a different library, but they would at least have been able to organise an inter-library loan if my own library didn’t hold a copy. In the digital age, the same chaos means that there is no concept of a single sign-on (for web access) using our card numbers; their systems are totally independent.

Let me just emphasise this: our libraries are insular bodies that do not recognise all library cards issued in the same country; they will not share digital resources with holders of cards from other districts; and not all libraries host the same online resources. To make this worse, some of those database publishers have no interest in personal subscriptions. Gale, for instance, informed me that “Our databases and digital archives are only available for institutions to trial and purchase. They are not available at this stage for individual subscriptions or trials …”, and so I was reliant on a library lottery.

I haven’t even considered the predicament of any expatriate researchers. I am lucky that I have retained a connection with my home country, even though I spend time elsewhere.

It’s hard to know who to blame: the individual libraries, the controlling authorities, or the publishers of the databases. But it is interesting to ponder on who benefits from this skewed, Luddite interpretation of Web access. Access to library resources is currently free to members of that library, but the database publishers want money. That money comes primarily from the local councils, and since each library decides on what it wants to host then they can’t afford to subsidise access from other districts where their libraries do not host the same resources.

I don’t know how functional the new BNA access is from the library premises, but I do know that the access provided through a Findmypast subscription is deliberately nobbled to the point of being barely usable (see When the Digital Age Hinders). I can therefore see how the same mentality would try to restrict it to a physical location. But there are claimed licensing restrictions on other databases, too. Why would these be necessary if the publisher gets paid? Are the libraries complicit in these restrictions in order to get a cheaper subscription?

The upshot of this is that users are left wanting. There is no coherent strategy regarding access to their Web resources across the country; if your own library doesn’t have it then you could be stuck. This includes all digital resources, not just genealogical or historical ones. Personal subscriptions to the relevant databases may not be possible, and so we need our libraries as portals to them. I would happily pay some modest amount, based on the frequency of my access, but that is only possible if these libraries agreed on a coherent national framework, including a single sign-on using our card numbers.

[1] Image credit: Mysticsartdesign, Pixaby ( : accessed 12 Jan 2017); CC0 Public Domain.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Impermanent Links

Why are Web hyperlinks so unstable? Is there a specific reason for this in the field of genealogy? Could archival approaches help? Will the Internet ever learn, and will genealogy survive?

Decaying URL links
Figure 1 – Decaying URL links.

OK, the introduction is a little emotive, but the issue of unstable hyperlinks is a bane for any researcher or author wanting to cite online resources, or for anyone merely wishing to return to something of interest.

A hyperlink is simply a field that can physically take you to a different location, either in the current document/page or in a different one, but in the context under discussion they relate to hyperlinks on the Internet. These are the links that connect the HTML pages and so form the core of the World Wide Web.

Each page has an address, or URL (Uniform Resource Locator), by which links find their target. The vast majority of these begin with the “http://” that we’re all familiar with, and which indicates that they are using the HTTP protocol. Hence, to be more accurate, the problem is really that of unstable URLs rather than unstable hyperlinks; when the address of the target is changed (or deleted) then the links to it become broken.

Supermarket Mentality

As with supermarket shelves, there is a perception in Web design that tearing down some organised arrangement and replacing it with a different one will always have an advantage. This might include giving things a fresh look, providing easier access, or simply justifying someone's employment. The persons responsible are not looking at such changes from the same perspective as the poor Web user (or supermarket shopper) who is trying to find the same thing as they used before. This so-called Link rot is an issue affecting all Web sites, not just genealogical ones.

A particular problem with genealogical sites, and with many historical ones in general, is that we usually have no option but to specify the search criteria by which we found some item. But citing an index is not the same as citing the underlying item. When some re-indexing occurs then our previous criteria may no longer be appropriate. It is not uncommon, too, to find databases renamed, or merged, thus exacerbating the problem of reproducibility.

Although less prevalent, the loss of a Web site — say after failing to pay for its upkeep — is another potential cause of broken links. Even if its holdings are snapped up by some other site then the associated URLs, and possibly the very organisation of the resources, will have changed.

A sorry example of this involves the “Your Archives” facility that was launched in 2007 by The National Archives of the UK (TNA). Their description of it read “…providing an online platform for users to contribute their knowledge of archival sources held by The National Archives and other archives throughout the UK”, and it acquired a huge amount of information that was not available in their other collections. One of the community projects was the “Historical Streets Project” that not only had indexes of which census pages covered particular streets, but also allowed people to “…write stories about localities, properties, institutions, and businesses etc.” Over 31,000 people registered and contributed but it was then abandoned in 2012 and the facility closed. The contributions are still on their Web site but they were dumped into a read-only archived location (e.g. becoming with the result that many internal links are now broken.

Link Rot

In 2010, Bugeja and Dimitrova showed that citations to online resources have a rate of decay that can be measured using a half life, akin to radioactive decay.[1] Radioactive decay occurs exponentially, and the radioactivity reduces by a factor of two after each passage of a fixed period, known as the half life. The same was shown to occur with the URLs in journal volumes with 50% of them becoming broken after each half life.

Half-life of URL links
Figure 2 – Half-life of URL links.

Schemes and Disciplines

So where are the weak spots in all this? Well, the basic structure of a URL may be summarised as follows:

scheme:  [//hostname]  [/]path  [?query]  [#fragment]

For instance:

The scheme usually indicates the protocol: HTTP in this case.

The hostname involves a hierarchical sequence of domain names, beginning with the top-level domain or TLD (“.uk”), and operating right-to-left through a second-level domain name (“.co”), etc. Each is a subdomain of the previous domain, so “www” is a subdomain of “”, etc.

The path appears as a sequence of slash-separated folder names, and usually maps directly to an equivalent hierarchical path on the Web server, but not always. The last part of the path is usually a file name, but this particular example describes page objects in a database rather than page files on disk and so there’s no *.html file.

The optional fragment identifier may indicate the placement of, or direction to, a specific item, and is most often the location of a heading or anchor-point within an HTML page.

We’ll mention ‘query’ in a moment.

The most common problem with the URL is that it may expose aspects of the Web server’s technology and current physical organisation. The term Semantic URL describes a URL form that is cleaner and more user-friendly because it describes a conceptual organisation instead of a particular physical one. It is usually said that these decouple the user interface (UI) from the server’s implementation, but it could be argued that URLs were never designed to be directly visible in UIs. Irrespective of this, they achieve a great longevity because the server can be reorganised without breaking previous URLs.

The term used to describe stable or persistent URLs is Permalinks. To some extent, the many URL-shortening sites such as,, and can achieve this, although they generally shorten long URLs by hashing the characters using base-36 or base-62 arithmetic, and result in apparently random characters. Some of these sites can generate more readable names, at the expense of some extra length, but the results are still flattened with the loss of any hierarchical semantics. Their advantages lay in situations of restricted length, such as in SMS text messages, and tracking for usage statistics, but they also get abused by spammers because you cannot see where they will redirect you.

Persistent URLs (PURLs) relate to a particular redirection service that allows manageable (i.e. modifiable) mappings between your public URLs and the underlying ones. These are differentiated from Permalinks by them using a different domain and being aimed at lifetimes of decades rather than years.

The general perception is that we need a stable and documented address for online resources so that we can direct someone to the exact same page and displayed data. Certainly this is an issue if you’ve hard-coded URLs in printed material, or you’ve embedded a URL in a hard-coded QR code, or you’ve hard-coded either of these on something physical like a grave marker. If you can’t guarantee the persistence of the URL then you really need an intermediate one that can be managed and redirected as appropriate.

This may be the general perception but it isn’t the full story. For a start, the increasingly dynamic nature of the Web means that the same URL does not display the same data, even when nothing has been rearranged. The page may allow some interaction with a back-end system, such as a database, and so what you see may depend on what you typed in the page, and possibly what you did before. This is already a problem for projects such as the Internet Archive since it cannot guarantee to restore fully operational Web sites.

For genealogy sites, the most important manifestation of this is the search operation. The vast majority of resources are indexed by one or more fields (primarily personal names) and there is no published URL format that will take you directly to the same page or data that you’ve found via your search; you have to cite the search parameters and hope that anyone following your citation will find the same information, and the same edition of that information (more on this later). So if we’re providing a URL, do we give the generic one of the content provider, or one taking you to their search dialogue, or something else?

Some resources may consist of just browsable un-indexed images, or tabulated data, and their citations might then use waypoints in order to guide someone else to the same information.

A little earlier, I indicated that URLs can also include a ‘query’ clause, although I deferred a description of it. The clause consists of an ampersand-separated list of name=value terms, and it is employed when access to the associated online resource involves an element of logic that cannot be represented by a simple hierarchical ‘path’.  A search operation is a good example, and the search parameters might be represented as individual query terms, e.g.


Google’s approach is slightly different in that they encode the complete search string, and more, in the fragment identifier, e.g.

Unfortunately, there is no requirement for the associated site to update the active URL in respect of what you’ve typed, or what local action you have requested. Such sites do not offer the opportunity to make effective use of a URL in a citation.

Another example is the OpenURL concept which uses the URL query string to encode the elements of a citation in order to retrieve a corresponding Web resource from an unspecified target. Although general-purpose in principle, it is used almost exclusively for published books and journals available online. The idea is that some resolver will parse the citation elements and return a link to a participating library or repository hosting an online copy.

Archival Approach

If you cite something in an archive, you would include the codes by which it was catalogued, and you wouldn't attempt to give its precise physical location in the building (although you might mention that it had to be retrieved from some auxiliary storage area). It then seems wrong that online resources are expected to be cited using their electronic location: their URL.

If the provider made available permalinks, and they were humanly-readable semantic URLs, then it would help, but it would not mean that data had actually been organised that way so where is the guiding principle?

Imagine if the content providers used an archival approach to their collections of images and transcribed extracts, treating them according to the natural hierarchy associated with their provenance and source arrangement (see Hierarchical Sources). Most URLs betray the fact that genealogical data organisation is determined by software principles rather than by archival principles, and with the provenance and structure of the source data being an afterthought at best. Such hierarchical arrangements would provide the natural levels at which to include archival descriptions, including the precious source-of-the-source that is so often inaccurate or omitted.

More than this, though, it would allow the provenance of the provider’s data to be plainly visible: such information as who produced a given image, who transcribed certain details, and when was that transcription last updated (i.e. corrected)?

There’s a tendency to think of a citation as a pointer to the original information source. Of course, this is wrong! While the source-of-the-source is important, the citation is primarily a pointer to the information that you consulted, and online sources will be derivatives of those originals; images will not be exact copies, and transcriptions (including transcribed extracts) will often be inaccurate (see Anatomy of a Source).

So what approach might help, given that content providers will have digital images and/or databases of transcribed information, as opposed to physical documents or other artefacts? Well, if they followed archival principles then they would catalogue sources as they’re scanned, and as they’re transcribed, treating their digital resources as sources in their own right, undergoing accession into their digital repository.

Case Study

The case I want to use in order to illustrate my point is the decennial census of the UK, and this will involve looking at how it is currently presented by Ancestry and Findmypast.

The census returns were taken on the same day across the UK but were the subject of different jurisdictions and are now stored and organised differently. Those of England and Wales are stored at The National Archives of the UK (TNA). Those of Scotland were stored at the General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh (GROS); however, on 1 April 2011, the GROS was merged with the National Archives of Scotland to form the National Records of Scotland. The surviving pre-1921 all-Ireland censuses are stored at the National Archives of Ireland, but later ones for the northern counties are stored at the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI). Although not technically part of the UK,[2] those for the Crown dependencies of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are also held at TNA.

TNA has a comprehensive scheme for cataloguing the materials it holds, and they publish recommendations for how it should be used to cite their materials at Citing Documents. For the censuses, this amounts to using the departmental code, series number, piece number, and book number (for 1841) for the specific census item; and then internal identifiers of folio and page number to identify a specific page within that item. For instance, ‘HO 107/11/12, folio 12, page 19’ in 1841, or ‘RG 9/2460, folio 43, page 27’ in 1861. These alphanumeric codes are used by virtually all UK researchers, but they are often viewed as cryptic and unhelpful in the US where all relevant long-hand details are expected in the citation, including the county, ecclesiastical parish, registration district, and possibly more.

What may not be known is that online copies of TNA’s images, and associated transcriptions, have to be indexed by these codes. I cannot provide a reference but I understand that this stipulation is in the licensing necessary from TNA. As a result, it means that they provide a much more accurate way of locating a known page than the vagaries of name-based searches, but it does not mean that additional detail cannot be provided. Indeed, the content-provider name is essential since their images and transcriptions will not be identical to others, as is identification of the person or family being referenced on the page. Citations are also about how source information supports or refutes an argument, and so any detail that establishes the nature of the source and the strength/weakness of its information will always be useful. However, failure to give all those archival codes would be doing a disservice to any reader with a UK interest!

NB: While these codes apply to those censuses held by TNA, they do not apply to the others such as the Scottish ones. This gives a small problem for the content provider if they wish to present a single census collection for the UK.
Picking on 1861 for the purposes of illustration, Ancestry has an “1861 UK Census Collection”, described as “The 1861 Census of England, Wales, Scotland, Channel Islands and Isle of Man”, which is accurate according to the contents therein, but it doesn’t contain Ireland, which was in the UK at the time. Although a search across the whole collection is the norm, it is also possible to search the individual databases in that collection by selecting from the list at the bottom of the search page:

1861 Channel Islands Census
1861 England Census
1861 Isle of Man Census
1861 Scotland Census
1861 Wales Census

For those relevant to TNA, extra input fields are presented for the piece, folio, etc.

Findmypast has an “1861 England, Wales & Scotland Census” database that presents input fields for piece, folio, etc., in all cases. The database also includes the Crown dependencies and so the title and description are both inaccurate according to the contents, even though it is not described as a “UK” collection. It is not as easy to restrict your searches to a particular country or island in this database. Back in 2015, the company came under fierce criticism because they’d introduced pseudo-TNA codes to apply to these input fields for the Scottish census transcriptions (ScotlandsPeople presented the images, but Findmypast were not allowed to use them), none less so than from Chris Paton of The British GENES Blog.[3]

Such criticism was well-founded if it related to the introduction of fake TNA codes that were not distinguished from the real ones, and which would therefore create confusion. However, if Findmypast had simply introduced a system of archival cataloguing for their own materials (following TNA’s precedent) then criticism would have been ill-founded; such an approach would have been wise, and that’s effectively what I am recommending here. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this was Findmypast’s intention.

Entering a document reference into TNA’s Web site (e.g. “RG 9/2460”) displays an archival description of the associated item, but neither Ancestry nor Findmypast can do this because they have no reference that is separate from their search functions. Let’s take a moment to look at their URLs (at the time of writing) for “James Procter” in the aforementioned 1861 census page, found directly via piece, folio, and page.

The list of people on this page in Ancestry’s “1861 UK Census Collection” corresponds to an opaque URL of:

It is opaque because there is little evidence of the original parameters that I specified. The transcribed extract for James is at the following URL, and the image URL for the page is so long that I won’t bother presenting it:

The list of people on that page in Findmypast’s “1861 England, Wales & Scotland Census” corresponds to a URL of:

This is much more readable, and the search parameters are clearly visible. However, the specific transcribed extract for James corresponds to the following:

This has lost all connection with the search parameters, and it contains undocumented codes that may or may not be persistent.

So what am I saying here? The different censuses should be accessible individually, thus respecting their provenance, and not dumped into a single amorphous database; Ancestry makes a good job of this. The provider should employ a set of persistent identifiers to organise their information according to its natural structure and provenance. Each page image and each transcribed extract (e.g. details of a given census person) should have a unique and persistent URL to access it directly via these identifiers, without having to go through the same search again — and so without having to pray that the indexing hasn’t changed.

The censuses held by TNA are interesting because the pages are already indexed by their original archival codes. These are termed natural keys since they are part of the original data and are not fabricated purely for some database indexing. When such keys are well-defined (and particularly when they’re mandated) then the provider’s identifiers should acknowledge them; however, the provider’s identifiers must be more detailed because (a) images and transcribed extracts must be two distinct derivatives of the same original information, and (b) the extracts may be at a lower level than the original source item level, or even below the individual page level, as in the case of a census.

Or, in summary, all online genealogical data should:

  • Expose persistent semantic URLs for each image and for each transcribed extract,
  • Include documented persistent identifiers in those URLs related to the provenance and natural structure of the associated source, as held by the provider,
  • Link the provider’s identifiers to corresponding archival descriptions, to the provenance of the information, and to source-of-the-source information.

[1] Michael Bugeja and Daniela V. Dimitrova, Vanishing Act: The Erosion of Online Footnotes and Implications for Scholarship in the Digital Age (Duluth, Minnesota: Litwin Books, 2010).
[2] For the purposes of the British Nationality Act 1981, the “British Islands” include the United Kingdom (Great Britain and Northern Ireland), the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man.
[3] Chris Paton, “FindmyPast, Scottish census sources, and Moby Dick”, The British GENES Blog, posted 27 Jan 2015 ( : accessed 16 Dec 2016).

Saturday, 3 December 2016

QIL: A Normative Scheme for Labelled Narrative

QIL is a scheme for labelling arbitrary segments of narrative when writing-up deductive reasoning such as ‘proof arguments’. I have been using this locally for my own work as there appear to be no published recommendations in this area. Depending on their background, other writers may find this presentation useful.

Narrative is, by its very nature, sequential. When one part needs to reference another part, either forwards or backwards, then we take it for granted that there will be an associated reference point: some identifier or label that will allow us to find the target text.

Chapters and sections are obvious examples of this. For instance: “see Ch. 12, and Sec. 12.1” (actual abbreviations dependent upon your style guide). The separating space would usually be a non-breaking space in order to prevent the number being separated onto a different line. Both of these cases would usually have alternative textual titles, too, although the chapter name and section heading would be less used for frequent intra-document references.

We also take it for granted that individual non-narrative items, such as Tables, Figures, Plates, etc., can be referenced directly. Their numbering usually runs consecutively throughout a document, beginning with number 1, and separately from each other.[1] For instance: “see Figure 12”.

The QIL Goals

The goals of this scheme were:

  • Visually identifiable way of labelling and referencing arbitrary narrative sentences or paragraphs
  • Associating certain semantics with the labels by using distinct introducers
  • Ensuring that the scheme is useable in both documents created via a word-processor and in online blog posts or other Web pages
  • Ensuring that their usage in electronic documents and online makes effective use of the corresponding hyperlink support

While headings could be used to label paragraphs, it would break the flow of the surrounding narrative, and so it may not be justified simply to create a label for future reference.

Although not part of the QIL scheme, I have used the following convention for headings when collecting together information from large-scale cluster research. It allows two neighbouring heading levels to specify a person followed by the sources relating to them, or a source followed by personae mentioned in that source.
Person-based (Person → Sources)
A number of sources provide enough direct and non-conflicting evidence to create a coherent snapshot of a person with some of their lineage or history. This will usually reference multiple sources, which would be described under secondary headings.

Source-based (Source → Personae)
A given source provides references to one or more individuals (or ‘personae’) whose identities and relationships to references in other sources has yet to be determined. Those distinct personae would be described under secondary headings.

However, I also needed to be able to create much lower-level labels for deductive logic. Having identifiable labels at this level may also help keep software visualisations in-step with the written argument, but this is an area which has yet to be explored to its full potential


Mathematics is a subject that includes an array of concepts that may need to be labelled and referenced, including equations, lemmas, and axioms. The most familiar one to the layperson will be equations, and I will briefly examine how these are handled in order to find a precedent for QIL.

When manipulating equations, such as when deriving a mathematical proof, references to prior equations will be essential. For instance: “Rearranging Eq. (1.2) and substituting Eqs. (2.1) and (2.2) gives…”. Note that the equations are typically numbered using the enclosing section number plus some sequential equation number within that section. Note also that associated references are usually preceded by the abbreviation “Eq.” or “Eqs.”.[2]

                                           E = mc2                                                                             (3.2)

Any scheme that applies to segments of narrative must be as simple as this, and embrace the basic requirements of relative numbering and the distinguishing of references from associated labels.

QIL In Microsoft Word

The QIL scheme began in Microsoft Word using the following format:

L(n.n.n):         Label
L(n.n.n)          Reference to label

The last integer (’.n’) was relative to the active heading-2 level numbering (the preceding ‘n.n’). The introducer, “L”, was then supplemented with a couple of other letters to provide some essential semantics, as follows:

  • Q(n.n.n): A query regarding anomalous evidence, conflicts, etc., that requires subsequent explanation or resolution
  • I(n.n.n): An inference made from evidence and/or other inferences that may be used subsequently
  • L(n.n.n): A general label for anything that may be cited later

Generating these is quite easy in Word because there are corresponding field codes: the invisible directives that can be embedded within your text. For instance, in order to generate “Q(2.3.7):” at a location within a heading-2 level of “2.3”, you could do the following:

  • Type the “Q(“
  • Ctrl+F9 to open a pair of field-code braces
  • Right-click and select ‘Edit Field…’
  • Select ‘StyleRef’, with the options of ‘Heading 2’ level and ‘Insert paragraph number’
  • Type the “.”
  • Ctrl+F9 again
  • Select ‘Seq’. Change the field code to “SEQ Q”, “SEQ I”, etc., as appropriate
  • Type the final “):”

Yes, this sounds excessive but there are easier ways.

The SEQ field code takes an arbitrary identifier so you can support separate sequences running concurrently: “Q”, “I”, and “L” in this scheme. They each start from 1, and continue until reset with a code such as “SEQ Q \r1”; hence, you would need one of these if switching to a new section. Although basing it on heading-1 level would be workable, and dependent upon your written style, the alternative of simply using global numbering, as in “Q(23):”, may be easier to generate but harder to find the corresponding label in your narrative.

If we go to the ‘Word Options’ and temporarily turn on the option to see these field codes (usually under ‘Advanced > Show document content > Show field codes instead of their values’), then we would see:

Q({ STYLEREF "Heading 2" \n }.{ SEQ Q }):

An easier way to generate these labels is to use copy-and-paste; any of them can be copied to a different section, selected with the mouse, and right-click ‘Update Field’ in order to create an entirely new one. However, my recommended method is to use the Word ‘Building Blocks’ feature, formerly called ‘AutoText’.

Select examples of each of the three labels (one at a time), type Alt+F3, and save them as named Building Blocks (e.g. QLab, ILab, LLab). You could also save copies of the corresponding ‘reset’ cases (e.g. QLabR, ILabR, LLabR). You can summon these at any time by typing their name followed by F3. The beauty of this scheme is that these definitions are stored in a Word file called ‘Building Blocks.dotx’, and so will be available in future documents.

Also, showing the underlying field codes — should you ever need them — can be done more easily using Alt+F9 to toggle their display.

Before we can generate a reference to one of these labels, we need to bookmark its textual location. Select the label with the mouse, but not the trailing “:”. Using ‘Bookmark’ in the ‘Links’ area of the ‘Insert’ tab, type in a name for the bookmark, and select ‘Add’. We then have a named location (rather than just a label) that we can reference later.

To generate a reference to it, select ‘Cross-reference’ in the same ‘Links’ area, select ‘Bookmark’ and ‘Bookmark text’ in the two drop-down lists, leave ‘Insert as hyperlink’ unchecked (for now), and chose a named bookmark. This will generate a copy of the corresponding bookmarked text (e.g. Q(2.3.7)) rather than the bookmark name, which is merely a local symbolic name. Looking again at the invisible field codes would reveal something similar to:

Example reference is { REF Q_2_3_7 \h }.

It is tempting to just use a name such as “Q_2_3_7”, as I have been doing in this article, but the inevitable moving around of sections will require labels to be re-generated (done by Ctrl+A to select everything in the document, and F9 to update all of its fields), and that would cause the symbolic name to get out of step with the actual text. A better scheme is to adopt functional names: ones that describes the associated query, inference, or whatever. Note that there are limitations on these names: basically 1–40 characters, beginning with a letter or underscore, and containing no punctuation or whitespace.

What we have here is a workable scheme for printed documents; we now need to look at it in the context of electronic documents and blogs (or other Web pages).

Word Hyperlinks

Word has two mechanisms for hyperlinking its bookmarks, and they are subtly different, although their terminology sounds too similar to the casual user:

  • Select ‘Cross-reference’ in the ‘Links’ area of the ‘Insert’ tab. Select ‘Bookmark’ and ‘Bookmark text’ from the two drop-down lists, and ensure that ‘Insert as hyperlink’ is checked. I’ll refer to these as “Bookmark hyperlinks”.
  • Select ‘Hyperlink’ from the same ‘Links’ area. Select ‘Place in This Document’ on the left, and select the required bookmark from the main tree panel. I’ll refer to these as “URL Hyperlinks”.

Comparing these mechanisms using the above bookmark-reference example gives the following respective field codes.

Example reference is { REF Q_2_3_7 \h }.
Example reference is { HYPERLINK \1 “Q_2_3_7” }.

Now these both hyperlink to the same bookmark, but their capabilities are not the same.

  1. When you insert a bookmark hyperlink then it nicely substitutes the bookmarked text — the QIL label in our case — as opposed to some symbolic bookmark name that is more relevant to the author than to the reader. When you insert a URL hyperlink then you only get the bookmark name. Although you can change the ‘Text to display’, you may need a good memory to recall the bookmarked label. Also, any such display text is fixed, and will not be kept in-step if you move sections around, since the display text is not part of the field code. Clearly this Word feature has not been thought out very well.
  2. A bookmark hyperlink looks like normal text until you hover over it, whereas a URL hyperlink is underlined and rendered in blue like normal Web hyperlinks. If you hover over either then they nicely show you the underlying bookmark name and the instruction ‘Ctrl+Click to follow link’.
  3. Most importantly, when saving the document as “Web Page, Filtered” — required for blogs and other HTML versions — then bookmark hyperlinks are discarded, but URL hyperlinks are not!

At first, I thought that neither of these did what I needed, and that my scheme was therefore doomed without major change.

Blog Hyperlinks

I’d previously written about using bookmarks in blogs at Using Bookmarks with Blogger, although I had to update that article following the findings of this more recent one.

The HTML equivalent of a bookmark is called an “anchor”, and is represented by the <a> element. Given an example sentence of:

L(4.1.3): This resolves the query at Q(1.2.6).

the HTML version we would hope for would be similar to:

<a name=”L_4_1_3”>L(4.1.3)</a>: This resolves the query at <a href=”#Q_1_2_6”>Q(1.2.6)</a>.

Where “L_4_1_3” and “Q_1_2_6” are simply the bookmark names that I had chosen.

In Using Microsoft Word with Blogger, I recommended saving Word documents as “Web Page, Filtered”, and not just “Web Page”, when using them to generate new blog posts. This is because it filters out the excessively verbose and complicated HTML that Word generates by default, and is necessary for the correct operation of feedburner (notifying people of new blog-posts).

The first thing I noticed was that the displayed document, following the new saved-as format, is not what is saved to disk; it appears to be using the full Word HTML version, which is why it all looks fine. The disk version will not have any representation of bookmark hyperlinks. Also, the anchor points stop after the first parenthesis, showing ‘<a name=”L_4_1_3”>L(</a>4.1.3)’ rather than the correct form in the example above. This appears to be a bug in Word 2007/2010 where the presence of the field codes representing those numbers clashes with the bookmarking, but it is not a showstopper because at least the anchor begins at the correct text location.

Given the flexibility that Word is endowed with, I was rather surprised by the hiccups and limitations when trying to implement this scheme. Although I mentioned some of the issues on a Word forum, I never expected any changes because — based on previous experience — you would be told ‘that’s the way it is’, ‘it works as intended’, and ‘we don’t recommend what you’re trying to achieve’. I can’t abide that sort of reaction from the fringes (the actual developers would probably be interested), but I wasn’t going to give up that easily either.

With the two types of Word hyperlink, one was much easier to use while the other was the one that was represented in the HTML. What I found was an unexpected hybrid that was not that onerous, and which seems to work in both 2007 and 2010 versions:

  • Generate a bookmark hyperlink for your chosen bookmark name
  • This deposits the bookmarked text (the QIL label) rather than the name, as required
  • If you’ve already forgotten the bookmark name in the preceding seconds, just hover over it
  • Select the deposited reference with the mouse and convert it to a URL hyperlink to the same bookmark

The interesting thing about this is that it still looks like the normal bookmark hyperlink (not underlined, and not coloured blue) but it really is a URL hyperlink and so works when saving as “Web Page, Filtered” in order to generate your blog page (see Using Microsoft Word with Blogger). The display text gets correctly updated in this case (unlike the manually inserted display-text mentioned earlier) since any text selected at the time the URL hyperlink is inserted becomes its display text, and in this scenario that contained the necessary field codes.

This scheme isn’t as complicated as it sounds, but some hoops had had to be jumped through. Using macros or add-ins could make it much more streamline.

[1] Joe Schall, "Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age: Textual References to Figures and Tables", John A. Dutton e-Education Institute - Pennsylvania State University ( : accessed 28 Nov 2016).
[2] Drs. Nathan Champagne, Scott Gold, Steve Jones, Terry McConathy, and Ramu Ramachandran, “Guidelines for Equations, Units, and Mathematical Notation: An addendum to the Thesis/Dissertation Guidelines provided by the Graduate School...”, College of Engineering & Science [COES] - Louisiana Tech University ( : undated but parts last updated 23 Feb 2006, accessed 28 Nov 2016).