Have you ever dropped into a web site – could be a legal research database or some other online information resource – and wondered where you were? Obviously, on the internet. But was there any other information to give you context for how the page you were looking at fit into the bigger picture? I was thinking about that on our commuter train recently, when it became clear that “locomotive” has more than one meaning.
There is construction going on at some of the stations on our train line. If you need to get off at those stations, you have to be in certain cars. The announcer called out which cars opened at which station. The announcement indicated that the coaches “next to the locomotive” would open at station A but not at station B.
Does “Locomotive” mean “Front”?
So far, so clear. If you know where the locomotive is.
Like many people, you might be excused for thinking the locomotive is at the front of the train. It almost always is in a Thomas the Tank Engine story! But our train is usually pushed, so the locomotive is actually at the back of the train. The front car is known as the cab car. I know this because I’ve been riding this train for more than a decade.
The announcer’s explanation is clear to the announcer and to those of us who ride the train all the time. As the train is leaving, the engine is the last thing you see as you walk to your car. If you walk up the stairs at the ends of the platforms, you’ll either see a locomotive (back) or no locomotive (front).
Experience (frequent rides) or linear approach (entering at an endpoint) increases the likelihood that you know where the locomotive is. But there are also a couple of stairwells in the middle, and riders can come up and get on the train without ever seeing either end.
What is their experience like? Well, in some cases, riders have arrived in the cab car on the assumption that the locomotive is at the front. But then they ask someone or the announcement is given slightly differently, and it becomes clear they’re at the wrong end of the train.
Online Texts and Context
In a law library, case law is pretty straightforward. It’s a linear document and it stands alone. References to related content are embedded inline as citations. An online case may allow you to move backwards and forwards from the primary case to the supporting citations, if they’re hyperlinked.
Secondary information online is not always that easy. Same with legislation, although perhaps for different reasons. If the information publisher does not take care to provide context, then a researcher can arrive in the middle of content and not understand how it and if it relates or relies on other content.
Here’s a good example. I did a search on Google for “oregon file brief rule margins“. The first hits are official court documents. But they are monolithic PDFs and give me no idea where the information I seek exists within the PDF.
Sure I could use CTRL-F to find information about margins. There are 10 occurrences of margin and 4 of margins. But why doesn’t the information provider make this information more useable? Because not everyone knows about CTRL-F
So let’s skip to the first legal publisher link, from Casetext.
I like this Casetext result for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn’t assume I’m accessing the rule from within their system. The page is built with context on it. Breadcrumbs at the top tell me where I am and a next section widget shows the next rule in the publication.
Legal researchers with access to commercial providers are probably less susceptible to losing context. We go into a commercial database, do a search or browse, and the publisher provides context.
Breadcrumbs are easy for anyone, but they aren’t always effective. Here’s an example using our digital repository. We aggregate articles by the conference they were presented at, so you can see related presentations.
Law Society of Ontario digital repository for CLE articles (AccessCLE) aggregates articles by the conference at which they were presented.
Here’s some navigation that’s less useful. A set of family law articles in a Canadian legal research database. They are aggregated by year, but that’s information you could get by a citation. There’s no topical context and I’m not sure chronological aggregation makes sense. Also, while you can page forward or back with the Previous and Next links, you don’t know where you’re going.
LexisNexis Advance family law article with navigation based on year of publication.
A more complicated and not necessarily intuitive option is to provide a table of contents. I’m not a fan of the Westlaw Proview interface because you have the worst of really long documents with a linear table of contents. Also you leave the Westlaw window and open a new window for the Proview content.
Since I was looking for information on filing briefs and required margins, the table of contents doesn’t really help me. If I’m in the wrong geographic location, I can re-orient, but then I still have a long document to scroll or CTRL-F through.
A table of contents is probably too high level and unnecessarily limited online. The ideal context would be somewhere between a book’s table of contents (top areas) and its index (detailed subtopics). There is no technical reason not to get more granularity to enable people to navigate around related content.
None of this is rocket science. On this blog post, you can find breadcrumbs, tags for related categories and topics, and suggested related posts. Since most people arrive at a specific blog post – not my home page – it is helpful to give them ways to find related things without entering the front door.
I’ve commented on this before in relation to ebooks. Some navigational tools that work great in linear books work less well online. A scrollbar will tell you how far down a page you are but there’s a need for greater context. In particular, sites like Casetext show how a solid contextual breadcrumb and more information around adjacent documents can help a researcher understand where they are.
It can be easy to forget that not everyone uses legal information in the same way. In courthouse and academic law libraries, there are many people who have never worked with legal information before. Law librarians can add value by knowing which resources lack context and, if they can’t eliminate them, help the researcher to work it.