Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Federal Legislative History - A Webinar by the Federal Depository Library Program

At some point, every law student will need to become aware of the various materials that were generated in the course of creating legislation which includes committee reports, analysis by legislative counsel, committee hearings, floor debates, and histories of actions taken.

On October 7, 2014, the FDLP, Federal Depository Library Program, will host a 60 minute webinar at 2:00 PM Eastern Time on just this topic. Registration is required but the webinar is free to everyone. The webinar will discuss the ways in which Federal statutes are published and cited, what  Federal legislative histories are and how they are used, the normal steps in compiling and researching Federal legislative histories, and the various resources available, both free and commercial.

You can register today at Federal Legislative History 101.

If you cannot make this webinar at this time, the FDLP archives them for later use and should be available at the archived site.

Don't miss this opportunity to get the information directly from the source.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Way to Save Websites for Later Viewing (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Procrastination)

If you’re anything like me, chances are you’ve probably stumbled on a newspaper article, blog post, or other website that you wanted to read, thought, "Huh, that looks interesting," and then realized you didn't have time to read it. Or, maybe you’re trying to keep your eyes out for news on a particular legal topic, or searching for a something to write about for a research paper or a law review note. Fortunately, there are a number of mobile apps out there that will save these pages for you to access later, online or off. These apps also strip down the site into a more readable, distraction-free format, so the article looks more like what you would find in an ebook. They’re a simpler alternative to powerful research tools like Zotero and Evernote, because they're intended as a quick solution, with no real opportunity to organize in a sophisticated way. This, I think, though, is their strength, as they allow you to quickly, and without hassle, save something you’ve stumbled upon for later viewing. (It should be noted, though, that they do all allow for tagging.)

I’m going to give you a brief overview of three popular options, from the perspective of an iPad user, though these are all available on additional platforms.

My personal favorite is called Pocket. (An earlier iteration was known simply as “Read It Later.” I think we can all agree that "Pocket" is a cuter, more memorable name.) With official apps for iOS, Android, Chrome, and the web, Pocket has a lot going for it. You can save articles from any browser, and a number of different mobile apps, including Pulse, Flipboard, the Onion, and others. One particularly nice feature that sets it apart from other read-it-later apps is that you can also save embedded video files to watch later (though you must have internet access available to watch them). 

In addition to being feature-packed, the app’s presentation is simple, elegant, and modifiable. For example, you can choose to view your saved items as tiles, or traditional lists. (See below.)

            When you’re reading an article, you can choose from three different color backgrounds--light, dark, or sepia. You can also change the font type (serif or sans serif) and size. From the article, you can also choose whether you want to create a tab for it.

If you’re not sold on Pocket yet, its price should convince you to at least try it out: it’s free!

Moving on, we will cover my least favorite app, Readability. (Some people must enjoy it, though, because I have seen it pop up on a lot of tech sites.) While Readability has an attractive user interface, I found it lacked many of the features that made the other two options attractive; it doesn’t integrate with other apps as well, and saving articles required some complicated extra steps. It didn’t have any features that made it unique compared to the other two apps. If, however, you’re the kind of person who’s put off by bells and whistles, Readability might be just the app for you! It does have a list of "recommended" articles, if you're looking for some inspiration. In this respect, it reminded me of a page like longform.org. This is nice if you're lost and looking for a place to start, but isn't an especially helpful feature if you're only looking to save your own finds. 

Readability is available on iOS, Android, and Kindle devices, with extensions for several browsers. Like the other apps, it allows you to tag articles, change font sizes, and alter color pallets. Like Pocket in particular, Readability is also free; this is its one crowning glory, in my opinion. In all fairness, it is an attractive app, as you'll see from the pictures below. The first page shows you the main screen, while the second shows you its presentation of a particular article.

In Readability's defense, it should be noted that it does work well as a web page, one which strips sites down to make for easier reading. Unfortunately, its developers have not yet managed to harness its potential in app form, and it has already been outdone by some competitors. 

Finally, Instapaper is the read-it-later app that launched a thousand read-it-later apps. This venerable old app was originally intended for the iOS elite only, but it has since opened the doors to many other platforms, like Android and Kindle. Actually, that’s an exhaustive list. This app is only available officially on iOS, Android, and Kindle, leaving everyone else out in the cold.  

Instapaper, unlike Pocket and Readability, has a social media component built in, allowing you to follow your friends you knew already or who you've made through Instapaper. If you’re using this app, though, to collect legal research sources, these extras might mean very little to you. Another new feature unique to Instapaper is that you can actually highlight the articles you save. This annotation feature is nice if you want to reference an article later, especially if you’re a law student or lawyer doing any kind of research. Instapaper also gives you more options to manipulate your view of articles, allowing you to select among 14 different fonts, paragraph spacing, and line spacing. It’s the best of the three for the demanding aesthete, I’d say. It also comes with a dictionary that you can even use offline.

To tell you the truth, though, I didn’t get the opportunity to use Instapaper, because it does cost money ($3.99) that I didn’t feel inclined to spend after enjoying Pocket so much. I just wanted to let you readers know that the option does exist, and it does have many a devoted follower. For an extensive review, visit this link

In conclusion, all three offer similar functions, and it’s up to the individual to decide which one appeals most to his or her tastes. They are all extremely useful as a means for collecting articles to read later or to save for consultation purposes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Research and the Think Tank

When researching in particular subject areas, I forget to tap into the power of “think tanks.”

The 10th edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary describes a think tank as an institute, corporation, or group organized for interdisciplinary research, and indicates that the word originated in approximately 1959. Consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, I learned that the original use of the term “think tank” was a reference to one’s brain (“Truman..said he hoped to live to be 90 but only ‘if the old think-tank is working’.”)  By 1958, the use of “think tank” in the way we use it today started to appear in journals, newspapers, etc. (Yes I noticed that Merriam Webster puts it at 1959 but I’m not about to ignore the OED on this point).

Now that we know this, what research use can we make of think tanks?

Let’s use RAND Corporation as an example. RAND’s evolution is linked with the waning days of WWII, the Douglas Aircraft Company, and the military. The story is interesting and you can find it on the RAND website.  I am interested in elder law since I recently embarked on my institution’s LL.M. program in Estate Planning and Elder Law.  Visiting Rand, I see that one of their research areas is “population and aging” and I quickly find articles and reports addressing crucial elder law issues such as improving dementia long-term care, and a summer 2014 presentation on cognitive aging, neuropathology and resilience. All of the research topics include an email service for keeping one up-to-date with new reports, and you can also sign up for an account that will permit you to save articles.

I think you will be surprised to see the breadth of topics researched and reported on by RAND so consider checking the site out for your next research project.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Friendlier Edition of the Federal Register

For those of you who already have some familiarity with administrative law, you probably know that researching in this area isn’t always easy or straightforward. Fortunately, with the help of the Government Printing Office (GPO for short), many of the needed resources are available for free online at www.gpo.gov/fdsys. One source of administrative law is the Federal Register, a daily publication of the federal government which includes notices, proposed rules, and final rules from federal agencies, as well as presidential documents.

While FDsys (which just stands for “Federal Digital System”) is a nice tool and provides an official PDF version of the Federal Register, it lacks the helpful navigational aids of a database like Westlaw or Lexis. Do not despair though, because Federal Register 2.0—a joint undertaking administered by the GPO, the Office of the Federal Register, and the National Archives and Records Administration—presents the same information that is available on FDsys, but with richly-linked pages, numerous navigational aids, and links to the official documents in PDF form. Best of all, Federal Register 2.0 is available for free! To appreciate the differences between the two sites, consider these screenshots of a new rule issued by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Below is the version you would find on FDsys. (Click to enlarge all images.) As you’ll see, it’s only a PDF replication of the written version of the Federal Register. It’s a great resource, because it’s free, accessible, and official. However, it doesn’t offer any navigational aids—no way to review the history of the rule, or learn more about the agency, or find links to related materials.

Now it should be immediately clear how Federal Register 2.0 (shown below) differs. First of all, because this is a proposed rule, there is a link to regulations.gov (under “Submit a Formal Comment”), the website that allows the public to make comments on a pending regulation. While the HTML version that you see when you first visit the page is not official, there is a link to the right (where it says "PDF") which takes you to the official version; it’s a link to the version available on FDsys, so you don’t have to do a separate search to get to the official Federal Register. You’ll also find a clickable table of contents, allowing you to get to a particular section of the rule quickly; this feature also lets you get a sense of what is covered without having to read over the rule in its entirety. On the right, there's also a link to the affected CFR part. 

Getting to this document is easy. There are a number of ways to access documents on Federal Register 2.0: you can browse by agency, by date published, or by doing a search. Below is an example using a citation in the advanced search screen. As you can see, you can also limit the search by a number of criteria, like publication number, affected CFR parts, or agency, just to name a few.

If you’re interested in the work of one agency, you can use the drop-down menu from the main screen to access a website devoted to that agency in particular. 

There you’ll find an overview of the agency’s scope and functions, as well as a link to its official page. You’ll also find links to “Documents Pending Publication”, “Most Recent Significant Regulations”, etc. Finally, there’s a search bar on the page which allows you to automatically limit your search to documents issued by that agency.

While Federal Register 2.0 was created primarily to make law more accessible to those outside of the legal field, it also has a lot of advantages for law students and lawyers who might otherwise look at FDsys for an online edition of the Federal Register. It makes use of the internet to create a more dynamic site, one that better reflects the flow of regulatory processes than its static counterpart.