Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How useful is access to free state primary information?

I recently came across Sara Glassmeyer's State Legal Information Census: An Analysis of Primary State Legal Information, which examines access to states' primary materials in regards to the UELMA. The purpose of the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act is to establish trustworthiness of online legal material by requiring that these materials be authenticated, preserved, and accessible, for use by the public on a permanent basis. As you can see from the Enactment Status Map below, only 12 states have enacted this law since 2011. Massachusetts is one of five states considering adopting it this year; Connecticut adopted it in 2013.

Although not a requirement of the UELMA, most states provide free access to their legal materials. See Artie's recent post on Free Websites for Massachusetts Primary Law. As the study points out, that access needs to be meaningful in order to be useful. I have been struggling with this myself when helping public patrons locate materials. How much instruction should be given? Is it enough to help them pull up a case without telling them about headnotes and how/why they need to validate their cases? Of course, these tools are available to patrons visiting the physical Library via our paid database subscription. These research tools are not available on states' official websites, where these (hopefully UELMA compliant) materials most likely reside.

Not surprisingly then, Glassmeyer's study found that adoption of the UELMA did not guarantee barrier free access to material. While the UELMA's prefatory information mentions that states have a responsibility to make their legal resources easily, and permanently accessible, enhanced features such as federated searching and validation tools are not addressed. See Pat's post on Casetext's free citator project, WeCite.

The fact that often information is available via multiple sites, while making it easily accessible, can complicate things. For instance, if you search for regulations in Massachusetts through the Secretary of the Commonwealth's website (the official publisher), you might think you have to pay to access this information, when you can access them free of charge on the Court's website.

In order to ensure access to these materials is meaningful, Glassmeyer suggests that states publish their information openly, allow for third parties to transform the information, and create citators.

What other features or research tools do you think are necessary to ensure meaningful access?

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