As a glance at any URL will tell you, unless you’re a computer with internet access, a “Universal Resource Locator” is nearly meaningless. Further, as IT standards continue to evolve no doubt even this seemingly bedrock spec will probably change. Further, far from “Universal”, URLs are only meaningful in specific, limited contexts: there are many resources that cannot be located with a URL.

This leads me to ponder a truly Universal Resource Locator. What form would it take? What attributes would it have? How would you use it?

The question stems from a practical problem in my current work with the James Madison Carpenter Folklore Collection edition. In the final printed volumes we wish to reference original documents, their digital counterparts and some digital-only resources in a way that is comprehensible to an ordinary human (as much XML can be, for example), not tied to a particular technology which will no doubt become obsolete or superceded, and which can describe many kinds of things: documents, sound recordings, photographs and so on.

Bibliographic references offer an analog: various standards have evolved over the years to reference different kinds of print materials in particular contexts. Of course, no standard is universal: Chicago, APA, etc. are all variations on this theme which appear to vary more in presentation than actual substance. But these standards have evolved because they’re useful: they provide a consistent and clear way to cite a book, article or other document.

So that’s the challenge I’d like to pose to anyone who’s interested: help me imagine a technology-independent, obsolescence-resistant and truly Universal resource locator.

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