Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thomas.gov is Moving

Did you hear? THOMAS is moving and being integrated into Congress.gov.
Beginning in November, individuals utilizing thomas.loc.gov will be redirected to the new site.



For those not familiar with THOMAS and therefore unaware of its usefulness, it was launched by the Library of Congress in 1995 to provide free access to federal legislative information. It is a valuable research tool for locating current bills and resolutions. The inclusion of the Congressional Record  and committee reports makes it a great source for legislative history research.

The Library of Congress describes Congress.gov as "a modern, durable and user-friendly resource." Most of the functionality of THOMAS has been carried over to Congress.gov, which has a much more "Goggle-like" feel to it. You can still search by keyword when you are not sure of a bill number. Facets and a "search within results" feature replace the advanced search option in THOMAS. One nice change is that you can search for legislation by year right from the homepage; previously, you clicked into the "advance search" in order to accomplish this task.


Many other tasks are easier to accomplish in Congress.gov, thanks to the new layout. For instance, the "Committees" tab enables you to see recent bills and resolutions passed by a particular committee. The new display lets you immediately see what actions have been taken, without clicking into the text of the legislation itself.

A new offering on Congress.gov is "Members" profiles; previously, users were directed to the members website for contact information. In THOMAS, you could retrieve sponsoring summaries, if you did a little digging, but the results display did not provide much information without clicking on a result.


THOMAS.gov



Congress.gov


One feature I did not see was the link to the U.S.C. that was available on THOMAS's homepage. I know this information is available from a number of different sources, but it was nice to have it readily available here.

THOMAS will remain accessible from the Congress.gov homepage through late 2014, when all the information should be migrated over to Congress.gov. Currently, Congress.gov contains information dating back to 1993, whereas Thomas has full-text documents dating back to 1989, with summaries of legislation dating back to 1973. Therefore, you may still need to access THOMAS for a while.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #3: WestlawNext for iPad

In my last post, I reviewed the WestlawNext Android app. In this post, I turn my attention to the WestlawNext iPad app.


According to Westlaw, the WestlawNext iPad app allows you to "enjoy all the features of WestlawNext customized to your iPad" and is "hands-down the best way to conduct legal research on the iPad." After running the app through its paces, I disagree.

The WestlawNext iPad app does a good job of customizing the WestlawNext experience to the iPad. The homepage is simple and uncluttered, but allows quick access to the major WestlawNext features.



As with the full WestlawNext website, the search box is prominent and the browse options are front and center. Rather than replicating the full website's targeted browsing options (federal material, state material, and topics), the app bases its browsing options on your use of Westlaw. If you do not want to browse from the standard menu of content types, you can browse your recent searches, recent documents, frequently used resources, and favorites. I particularly like the frequently used resources because I use certain groups of resources as starting points for my research (such as the MCLE library for Massachusetts law). The frequently used resources browse option lets me jump directly to my preferred resources instead of stepping down through the browse menu.

The homepage also contains quick access buttons across the bottom of the screen. These buttons are accessible anytime you are not viewing a document, and they allow you to move between the homepage, your search results, your history, your folders, and your offline documents. The buttons took me some time to get used to, since the history and folder buttons are at the top of the screen in the full website. I still tend to search around for the buttons for a couple of seconds when I want to access my folders in the app.

Unlike the Android app, the iPad app provides the full-featured WestlawNext search experience. All of the content filtering options that I have come to love are available. With the iPad in landscape mode, the content filter menu is displayed on the left.  In portrait mode, the menu is collapsed into a button to save screen space, but all of the filtering options are available if you push the button and expand the menu. Whichever way you hold the iPad, you can narrow your searches with the full power of WestlawNext.

When you open a document in the iPad app, you can KeyCite the document, read it, email it, save it to a folder, or save it offline. The offline option is handy if you are taking your iPad somewhere where you won't have Internet access. You can search for and save a collection of documents while you're still connected to the Internet, and then read them at your leisure.


The iPad app may look nice and have a good feature set, but it does not live up to Westlaw's claim that you can "enjoy all the features of WestlawNext." Most of the features are present, but some are missing in action. All of the missing features are ones that are also missing from the Android app.  The Westlaw alerts system is not accessible in the iPad app, and you cannot save documents directly to the iPad in PDF or other standard formats. These omissions are as unnecessary and inexplicable on the iPad as they are in the Android app.  For a discussion of these features and their absence, take a look back at my Android app review.

The related documents column is also missing from the iPad app. I thought that the loss of the related documents column in the Android app was a reasonable result of porting WestlawNext to a smartphone. In the iPad app, I find the absence less understandable and acceptable. Yes, screen space is still at a premium on an iPad, but I think the iPad screen in landscape mode is big enough to accommodate the related documents column. For those who disagree, Westlaw could have made the column collapsible like the content filter menu is in portrait mode.


Despite the missing features, the iPad app is a great way to conduct legal research on an iPad. The visual layout and design demonstrate a solid understanding of how to use the iPad's screen, and the presence of content filtering means I can search as effectively in the app as I can on the full website. Yet the app falls short of Westlaw's claim that it is the "best way to conduct legal research on the iPad." I like the iPad app, but I won't be using it for my legal research. The app does not lose out because of any obvious shortcomings; it falls victim to the excellence of the full WestlawNext website. The full website is so well designed that I don't need an app to port WestlawNext to the iPad--I can use the full website on the iPad as is.

There are two reasons to use an app rather than a website for a web-based platform like WestlawNext: 1) the website does not display well on the iPad screen, and 2) the app can offer different or better features by making use of the iPad's functionality. Neither of these reasons apply to the WestlawNext iPad app. In my opinion, the full website looks great on the iPad screen. In landscape mode, the iPad is able to display the website exactly as a computer monitor does.




The full website offers a visual experience every bit as good as the iPad app, and it provides a better set of features. The app does not add to the WestlawNext experience; it subtracts from it.  The only features the app offers that the full website does not are the ability to save documents offline and the frequently use resources browse option. But the save offline feature is not necessary in the full website since the website allows you to save documents to the device in PDF and other standard formats, which by definition makes the documents available offline. And the frequently used resources browse is useful, but more of convenience than a feature I would depend on. On the other hand, the app does take away features, as I discussed above. And the app requires learning a new layout. When I use the full website on my iPad, I already know where everything is going to be on the screen; I never waste time searching for the folder button.

The WestlawNext iPad app is a high quality app. But it is unnecessary. The full WestlawNext experience is already available on the iPad through the web browser.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Complete Run of Digitized Massachusetts Acts and Resolves at the State Library



Did you know that the State Library has digitized the Massachusetts Acts and Resolves? Volumes dating back to 1692 are available in two different locations: the State Library’s DSpace Repository (1692 to 2009) which evidently is best for searching for an act; and the Internet Archive with material from 1692 to 1959, evidently best for searching for a resolve or looking for supplementary material.  

Here’s a task designed to help you explore the site: follow these steps to find st. 1785, c. 69 s.7, one of the first Massachusetts statutes addressing alimony. From the State Library’s home page, click into “Massachusetts Acts and Resolves,” and then click into “Internet Archive.” This brings you to a grid in which it is easy to see where your citation should fall (“Resolves 1784-85”). Clicking into my choice, I found optimum speed and utility by clicking directly into the book icon or into the link “read online.” 

Before actually trying to find the citation, click on the bottom right hand corner of the screen – the page turns like a real book. Now notice there is a search box in the upper right hand corner. If you didn’t know this act was about alimony, you could just put in the number 69. The search engine finds all references to 69 and by hovering over the markers that appear at the bottom of the screen, you can read the text that appears there to see if it is about alimony. (Of course, you can also just put in your “alimony” search term but for purposes of demonstration that’s not as interesting.) 

I may be late coming to this party, but I am pleased to discover that there is a complete run of Acts and Resolves archived that is searchable and as available as my nearest internet connection. Thank you State Law Library!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #2: WestlawNext for Android



WestlawNext is one of the go-to tools in my legal research toolbox.  So I was quick to install the WestlawNext mobile apps on my Android smartphone and iPad.  I had high expectations for the power of WestlawNext on my mobile devices.  Unfortunately, neither app delivered the experience I wanted.  The apps successfully adapted WestlawNext to the small screen visually, but at the cost of too many features.

WestlawNext for Android

The WestlawNext Android app offers the basic WestlawNext experience for Andriod devices.  You can search across your entire WestlawNext subscription, browse for individual titles or collections of contents and search within them, keycite documents, view your history, and access your folders.  But under the surface, many of the capabilities of the full WestlawNext website are missing.

The lack of functionality becomes apparent the moment you perform a search.  The content filters for narrowing your search are gone.  The only features for narrowing search that the app retains are division of results by content type and the ability to search within your results.  The app does not allow you to narrow your results by date, jurisdiction, topic, publication, author, or any of the many other options available on the full WestlawNext website.  You can achieve some of the same effect by narrowing your search at the onset (selecting a specific jurisdiction or publication, for example), but you lose the chance to narrow your search on the fly based on the results you get.  You can find Massachusetts cases by limiting your initial search to Massachusetts, but then you won’t have the option of looking at what your search returned for Connecticut or New York.  Also, the process of narrowing down the content before you search goes against the search approach that Westlaw is advocating through the use of a single search box.  For all practical purposes, filtering to narrow a search is nonexistent in the app.

The Android app also limits the options for saving documents.  You can save a document to a folder or email it as an RTF or PDF, but you cannot save it to your device.  You can approximate saving by emailing the document to yourself and accessing the email from your device.  But this approach adds multiple steps to what should be a basic process.  The app contains the functionality to save documents (what it can email, it could save); I see no reason for Westlaw to prevent me from accessing the functionality directly by saving documents to my phone.

Some of the functionality of the full WestlawNext website is missing entirely.  For one, the related documents column has disappeared.  In general, this isn’t a great lost.  The related documents column offers the chance to find a case or treatise by serendipity.  Maybe a word or two catches my eye, and I set off in a direction I hadn’t known to take.  But the column only works if there is screen real estate to devote to it.  On a smartphone, the screen is not large enough to reasonably display both a results list and the related documents.  Related documents would only be a viable option if they were displayed separately, and then I think the serendipitous discovery effect would be gone.  Excluding the related documents column from the app is a reasonable choice.

A second piece of functionality that is missing is Westlaw Alerts.  This is a much greater loss than the related documents column, and much less reasonable.  The WestlawNext Android app does not allow you to create, view, or edit alerts.  I cannot think of a single reason for leaving alerts out of the app.  Almost everything related to alerts would be displayed on a separate page from what the app already contains, so alerts would not have to share screen real estate with any of the other functions.  The two exceptions would be an alerts entry on the main menu and a button to create an alert added to the search result page and key cite page. On my phone, the main menu has plenty of space for another entry.  And saving the minimal space of a button on the results page is hardly worth the loss of the ability to create alerts.

As a means of accessing WestlawNext documents, the Android app is excellent.  Given a citation, you can quickly find and read or keycite a case.  You can access your folders to read documents from earlier research.  And you can revisit documents and searches from earlier WestlawNext sessions.  All of this is easy to do, and the interface and documents are well presented for use on a smartphone.  As a search platform, however, the app falls short.  In a pinch, I could use it to conduct simple research, but it fails to deliver the robust search experience I have come to associate with WestlawNext.  Worse, I see few good reasons for leaving the functionality out of the app.  For instance, the contents filters (the feature I miss the most) could have been included in an expandable menu (as Westlaw did with its WestlawNext iPad app).  So screen size is not an issue.  Processing power is also an unlikely rational, as narrowing a search should not take any more power than performing the initial search.  Westlaw seems to have made the decision that its mobile users won’t want or need the missing features.  In my case, at least, Westlaw is wrong.  For now, I will continue to use WestlawNext primarily through the full website.  I don’t have the patience to use a hobbled search platform without something in return.  The WestlawNext Android app, while it looks nice on a smartphone, does not provide me with enough return to make up for what is lost.

This review applies to the iPhone as well as Android devices.  Westlaw has not released a WestlawNext app for the iPhone.  Instead, iPhone users access WestlawNext via the WestlawNext mobile website.  The mobile website and the Android app are identical, so my review applies to both equally.

Westlaw has released a WestlawNext app for iPad, and it is different from the Android app and mobile website.  Check back next week for my review of the iPad app.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #1: Annotating PDF documents with Note Anytime

More and more legal research is being done electronically.  But one aspect has stayed mainly in print--note taking.  Once I find that perfect case, my standard process is to print it out so that I can scribble notes in the margins as I read. Those notes are essential to using the case going forward, whether I'm writing a memo or paper or conducting research for someone else.

The other day, a student commented that she also prints out cases to annotate them, though she wished she had an electronic alternative so that she didn't use as much paper.  At her suggestion, I set out to find an iPad app that would allow us to annotate cases without having to print them out.

I looked at twelve apps: WestlawNext, Bloomberg Law, Lexis Advance, pdf-notes, Mendeley, DocAS Lite, Goodnotes, PDF Max, Note Anytime, TopNotes, and UPAD Lite.  My initial criteria was that the app must allow me to hand write my notes.  This eliminated WestlawNext, Bloomberg Law, and Lexis Advance.  These apps allow you to annotate cases, but only with typed notes.  For the rest of the apps, I downloaded a case as a PDF document and tested the ability to add notes to the PDF.

Note Anytime was my favorite, so I will confine my review to it.

Note Anytime has a clean, simple interface.  I had no problem figuring out how to hand write and type notes, how to erase them, and how to switch between editing modes.  The one task I had difficulty figuring out on my own was highlighting.  Note Anytime does not have a separate highlight function.  Instead, you have to edit one of the pens to work as a highlighter by changing the color, thickness, and opacity of the lines it draws.  Once the pen is configured, it works great as a highlighter.  And while I could not figure out highlighting on my own, I had no trouble going through the pen setup once I read the easy-to-follow instructions in the Get Started guide.

Writing by hand is somewhat clunky, but this is a function of the iPad, not the app.  For my notes to be legible, I had to write fairly large letters, even when using a stylus.  So I had to zoom in considerably to write my notes.  Note Anytime allows you to write on the document in two ways.  You can either write directly on the document as if it were actual paper, or you can use the zoom tool, which gives you a panel to write on and places the text on a specified square in the document.  Because of how far I had to zoom in to have enough space to write, writing on the document was not practical.  I was zoomed in so far that I could not both read the text and take notes, which defeated the purpose of the note taking.  So I used the zoom tool instead.



The zoom tool provides plenty of space to write, and you can still see the text.  The only drawback is that you have to keep moving the square where your writing appears in the document every time you use up the space in the panel, which can happen frequently.  This was annoying at first, as it disrupted the flow of my note taking.  But once I got used to it, I could move the box quickly and without much thought.

When you import a PDF into Note Anytime, it converts the document from a PDF into a Note Anytime document.  This means that you are not tied to the page dimensions of the original PDF.  Note Anytime allows you to re-size the PDF page in relation to the note page.  You can increase the size of the margins by shrinking the text, creating more room for notes.  The text will be smaller, but thanks to the ability to zoom, the smaller text is not a problem.  

Note Anytime also lets you add pages into the PDF, so you can insert a page of just notes if you want.  Unfortunately, the app will not let you view two pages side-by-side, so you cannot use an added page as the equivalent of additional margin, something which disappointed me.  Still, the ability to re-size the page provides enough margin space for most note taking.

One aspect of Note Anytime that takes some getting used to is the two finger scrolling.  While you are in pen mode, you draw using one finger.  So if you are zoomed in on a document and want to scroll to a new place on the page, you must use two fingers on the screen.  I repeatedly forgot to use two fingers and drew many arrant lines on the document as a result.  Expect to use the erasure frequently until you are accustomed to multifinger scrolling.


Once you have finished annotating a document, Note Anytime will convert it back to a PDF or to an image, and you can export the document or image for use in other programs or on other devices. Export options include email, print, send to Facebook, and send to Dropbox.  I use Dropbox to keep track of files across my devices, so I was pleased to see that Note Anytime has Dropbox integration.  The integration is not as complete as I would like.  While you can export a file to Dropbox, you cannot set up Note Anytime to automatically sync files with Dropbox, and you cannot import a file into Note Anytime by loading it into Dropbox.  Note Anytime's developers have said they are looking into improved Dropbox integration, but they have not given any indication of when it will happen.


Overall, Note Anytime offers real potential as a replacement for taking margin notes on paper.  The interface takes a little time to master, and some of its features, such as highlighting and send to dropbox, are not as complete as I would like.  But the features it has make up for anything it is missing.  In particular, the ability to create more margin space sets it apart from any other app I tried.  Most importantly, I was able to pick up the app and start taking useable notes almost immediately.  I was looking for a program that would let me hand write notes without much of a learning curve, and Note Anytime delivered.

I reviewed Note Anytime for iOS.  The app is also available for Android, Kindle, and Windows 8.



Introducing a new series—Mobile Apps for Legal Research



This week I am starting a new series on mobile technology.  In each post in the series, I will review an app for iOS or Android that is either designed for or useful in legal research.  Mobile apps abound, and not all apps are created equal.  The purpose of this series is to help you find the gems and avoid the dross.

I’ll choose apps to review based on what I am playing with at the time, and I’ll primarily focus on free apps because those are the ones I use.

In this week’s inaugural post, I'll review an app for annotating PDFs.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Congressional Research Service Reports


Wondering about the mechanics of the government shutdown or raising the debt ceiling?  Mark Giangrande at Law Librarians Blog identifies several government reports that will answer your questions:
The three reports in Giangrande's post highlight a valuable resource every legal researcher should be aware of: the Congressional Research Service (CRS).  CRS is a nonpartisan agency that provides policy and legal analysis to members of Congress.  Individual legislature and Congressional committees request information on a topic, and CRS's expert researchers create reports with insightful and comprehensive analysis. 

CRS issues reports related to most major pieces of legislation, as well as controversial issues.  It also issues reports on more mundane topics, such as Procedural Distinctions Between the House and the Committee of the Whole and Relief Portraits Located on the Walls of the Rayburn House Office Building Terminal of the House Subway and Over the Gallery Doors in the House Chamber.  CRS will research anything a member of Congress asks about, from a case before the Supreme Court to the basics of the legislative process.


Because of the breadth of the topics, CRS reports are an excellent place to check for background whenever you are researching an issue related to federal legislation or the federal government.  CRS reports are public domain documents, but unfortunately that does not mean they are publicly available.  CRS does not publish its reports to the public.  Still, there are several ways to get access to the reports.

The Federation of American Scientists, Department of State, Open CRS, and the University of North Texas all offer collections of CRS reports.  These sites are all freely accessible.  But they have limited collections.  The Federation of American Scientists, Open CRS, and the University of North Texas are able to make available only CRS reports that have been requested from members of Congress and either given to the collections or made discoverable via another free website.  The Department of State provides access to reports back to 1999; older reports are not available.

Another source of CRS reports is ProQuest Congressional.  This database provides access to a wide array of federal legislative documents.  The Law Library's subscription includes ProQuest's complete collection of CRS reports, 1916-present. Access is limited to Western New England University students, faculty, and staff.

To search the CRS reports on ProQuest Congressional:
  1. Open the database
  2. Select Advanced Search
  3. Select CRS Reports from the list of searchable collections
  4. Enter your search terms and click Search

For more information about the Congressional Research Service itself, take a look in our archives at this excellent post by Renee from last year.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Law Firm Blogs



I’m aware that Google is usually the first (and too often only) stop for many novice legal researchers. However, it never dawned on me that seasoned professionals are making this same mistake, until I came across Matt Kaiser’s How Not to do Legal Research post. I was surprised to read that many attorneys stop researching once they find another law firm’s post on the topic. This is startlingly on a few levels, but mainly because if you are not familiar with an area of law, how do you know the information is accurate. Maybe that attorney found his/her information on another blog and didn’t bother to verify it.

Search any legal issue and you are bound to come across numerous law firm blogs/sites in your results. I did a quick search for “Legal issues involving falling tree limbs and Massachusetts."



I'm not saying that researchers should disregard any information they find on the internet, but the information should be critically reviewed. At least a few of these results may be reliable, and there are a few things to look for to help identify those sources:

Currentness
Look for recent posts or sites that are updated regularly. Depending on your issue, there may be recent changes to the law that will not be reflected in older posts. A quick scan of the results from my search revealed posts from 2003 to present.

Length
As with any topic, length varies widely. For my search on falling tree limbs, I came across some posts as short as a few paragraphs and others that were a few pages long. Longer posts generally mean more content, but not always meaningful content. Look for posts that contain citations to the primary authority governing that issue. 

Authorship
Publishers rely on subject experts to write books, so should you. Look for posts by attorneys or firms specializing in that area of law. This may mean doing a little more research.
Are you done once you've located a reliable source? No! It’s best to think of posts as secondary resources that point you to the law, but then you have to read the actual authority. Do I even need to mention validating your research? Even if you do not find a post containing citations to relevant authority, you can still use posts to identify keywords before you jump on a fee-based database. For my search, I found "nuisance," "Act of God," "encroachment," and "self-help" before even logging in to Lexis or Westlaw.

The rise of the Internet for legal research has provided more venues for legal experts to dispense their
knowledge. By all means, take advantage of this resource, but always make sure to critically review the source.