Readable URIs

Over the years we’ve been engaged in a number of discussions in which the ‘readability’ of URIs was raised, either as an issue with non-readable URIs or as a requirement in new URI schemes.

At the Registry, we understand and are sensitive to the desire for human readability in URIs. However embedding a language-specific label in the URI identifying concepts in multilingual vocabularies has the side effect of locking the concept into the language of the creator. It also unnecessarily formalizes the particular spelling-variant of the language of the creator, ‘colour’ vs. ‘color’ for instance.

When creating the URIs for the RDA vocabularies we acceded to requests to make the URIs ‘readable’ specifically to make it easier for programmers to create software that could guess the URI from the prefLabel We have come to regret that decision as the vocabularies gained prefLabels in multiple languages. And it creates issues for people extending the vocabulary and adding concepts that have no prefLabel in the chosen language of the vocabulary creator.

That said, the case is much less clear for URIs identifying ‘things’, such as Classes and Properties, in RDFS and OWL, since these are less likely to have a need to be semantically ‘understood’ independent of their label and are less likely to be labeled and defined in multiple languages. In that case the semantics of the Class or Property is often best communicated by a language-specific, readable URI.

In the end I personally lean heavily toward non-readable identifiers because of the flexibility in altering the label in the future, especially in the fairly common case of someone wishing to change the label even though the semantics have not changed. This becomes much more problematic when the label applied to the thing at a particular point in time has been locked into the URI.

I’m not trying to start a non-readable URIs campaign, just pointing out that the Registry, in particular, is designed to support vocabulary development by groups of people, whose collective agreement on labeling things may change over the course of the development cycle, who are creating and maintaining multilingual vocabularies. Our non-literal-label URI default is designed to support the understanding we’ve developed of that environment over time.

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