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Sunday, March 05, 2017

Paul Bessel's Website Up and Running Again


After more than two months of disappearance, Paul M. Bessel's enormous website at www.bessel.org is once again up and running. Brother Paul's site contains more than 200 individual pages of research that took him over two decades to compile, including Masonic statistics, lists, maps, and other resources that have been indispensable to other researchers for many, many years. His information regarding Prince Hall recognition alone is one of the most commonly referenced resources of its kind anywhere.

Restoring his site was accomplished with the gracious permission and assistance of Paul, and with the sponsorship and under the auspices of the Masonic Society, especially Nathan Brindle. In fairness, I kind of shoved it on Nathan when I saw the site had vanished around Christmastime, and we plunged ahead without really asking permission of the Society's Board to do it on their behalf beforehand. Nevertheless, it's up, it's fixed, and it's there to stay now, and the Board thankfully agreed it was the right thing to do.

The current goal has been to just get Paul’s old site back up and restore the thousands of hours of hard and tedious work he had done before. Numerous pages and graphics files were lost suddenly when his hosting company switched servers last year, so those had to be rescued from Wayback Machine archives. Additionally, Paul himself had not updated the site in several years. I’m sure it was a big job requiring constant tending and it undoubtedly became a chore after a while. My reason for wanting to restore the site was to ensure that the 20 or so years of research he had done before not be lost forever. Additionally, hundreds of other websites all over the world, as well as references in numerous books on Freemasonry, and even Wikipedia articles, had links or footnotes that pointed to data contained on his website. I felt it would be disastrous for all of those references to Paul’s information to just vanish into thin air and a 404 error message page.

Thankfully, Paul agreed and was very accommodating in permitting us access to his account and authorization to take over its administration. In return, we left Paul the option to update his site should he have the desire to do so in future. Somewhere down the road, we may tackle attempting to update selected pages - but bear in mind that his site is enormous, and it took him two decades to get it to where it currently stands. To truly go in and update the constantly changing things like grand lodge email or physical mailing addresses and websites, annual statistics, and much, much more, in addition to his numerous other pages that need tweaking, would be a major undertaking. It was his personal devotion that made the site so indispensable over time, and it would take an equally dedicated person or group of researchers to fix it all and keep it up to date again. And finally, I will just also add that Paul constructed the site with software that has been long outdated and unsupported, so it would also require technology changes to fix it properly without breaking anything. (My own websites suffer from the same problem, and I dread wading into it for my comparatively small website, much less one the enormous size of Paul’s.)

Some of this got discussed on the Philalethes Society email list last month when others began to notice the site was gone as well. In the wake of Paul and I explaining what was going on, I began to get private messages with suggestions for changes, or updated information from around the world, especially from folks in jurisdictions whose contact information or web addresses had changed. Please note that the immediate objective has been to preserve Paul's existing work, and that has been accomplished.  I appreciate the updated information brethren passed along, but I’m afraid it will be a while before anyone gets around to taking a stab at the kind of serious updating the site needs if it is to truly become up to date again. Thanks so much for everyone's kind offer of assistance, nevertheless.

There are few Masonic websites that are trustworthy, well researched and documented, and truly indispensable for Masonic and academic researchers of the fraternity: Paul's site; the incredible website of the Grand Lodge of British Columbia & Yukon that is largely the dedicated work of the inexhaustible Trevor McKeown; the ever growing PhoenixMasonry Masonic Museum and Library site which is the labor of love of David Lettalier; and the MasonicInfo.com Anti-Masonry Points of View website of Ed King. There are certainly others, but these four continue to stand out as massive online storehouses of reliable information any Masonic researcher or casual observer needs to have ready links to at all times.

Finally, take this as a cautionary tale. If you have a lodge, grand lodge, company, or personal website of any size or complexity, and you don't wish it to vanish into the aether upon your death, incapacity, technical obsolescence, or just plain neglect, take steps to preserve it now before it becomes almost impossible for you or others to retrieve. Paul's original files were partially on an outdated home computer he was able to access enough to create a DVD copy to send me, but not all of his files were there. His hosting company's administrator went beyond the call of duty and seriously earned his hosting fee by painstakingly rebuilding the missing parts of the site from Wayback Machine captures for us. Don't make the same mistake and force others to salvage your website the hard way. Make complete site backups and make sure others have access to your site passwords and account sign-ins somehow if something prevents you in future, for whatever reason.

6 comments:

  1. This is a major contribution to Masonic historiography. Everyone who helped deserves deep thanks.

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  2. Paul's website is an invaluable resource. The Masonic Society is to be highly commended for agreeing to do the right thing here and make it available. Thank you very, very much.

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  3. Good men doing good things.... I salute you and Br. Bessel!

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  4. A word to Lodge secretaries and webmasters: Try to ensure that your officers have "permanent" email addresses that won't change when personnel change. So "secretary@mylodge.org", for example, can always get to the secretary. When personnel change, the address's forwarding instructions can be changed. This way, references in other websites won't get broken when you get a new secretary.

    W.Bro Chris Hansen, Secretary, Goliath Lodge #5595 UGLE but writing in a personal capacity.

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  5. Is there a way (or need) for Brothers to support this preservation? I can't imagine it's cheap and easy to maintain such a large pool of information.

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    Replies
    1. In this individual case, we have had no discussion internally about it. For the immediate time being, Paul's hosting fees and DNS registration are paid up through autumn, and those are not unreasonable. His site's hosting administrator didn't ask for any extra payment to rebuild what was lost, and for that all of us are grateful, as he spent about three days over a weekend tracking down button graphics, missing directories, etc. and snagging them from the Wayback captures one at a time. I was frankly astonished to find the whole site intact by Monday morning after he started.

      (By the way - please let me know if anyone finds anything still missing, down to missing images of any kind. I think they've all been found, but it's a massive site, and I haven't looked everywhere yet.)

      In the long term, this will undoubtedly be a topic of conversation within the Masonic Society, but it probably deserves wider discussion just from the standpoint that sites like the four I mentioned and many others - some dating back to material first compiled in the old Usenet days, and then moved to some of the first Masonic sites on the Web 'as we now know it.' Many of these massive sites have never been equalled, and as the earliest online Masonic pioneers pass away, the sites vanish quietly with them.

      Additionally, there is the never ending problem of 'The next Big Thing.' Facebook alone has destroyed much outstanding information that appeared for many, many years on sites like php forums that have vanished from inactivity. Even lodge websites are being neglected in favor of Facebook pages that are no substitute, and will also vanish when the NEXT Big Thing evolves.

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