Tuesday, February 02, 2010

More About Westlaw Next

OK. Well, I’ve had a little time to digest and grieve and generally process the big news that is Westlaw Next. I’m ready to talk a bit more about it.

It’s not the end of librarianship or quality in research. While it really does a lot to shore up sloppy queries, by doing away with selection of databases and by constructing much better queries based on “behind the scenes” searches of West’s indexes, key number system, etc., Westlaw Next still is not foolproof or magical. It actually is going to do some interesting shifting of the burdens in the research process, now that I think about it.

As I mentioned before, the best query is going to be a formulation of what you want your ideal document to say. That requires the researcher to actually front load a lot of legal analysis! Surprise! That takes us right back to Barbara Bintliff’s 1996 assertion that online legal research has changed the way that lawyers think. In From Creativity to Computerese: Thinking Like a Lawyer in the Computer Age, 88 Law Libr. J. 338, (Summer, 1996), Bintliff points out that in book-based research, lawyers had to think about the theory of the case and do at least some legal analysis before going to the digest index. In most online queries, she says, the keywords are based instead on the facts of the case, not on the legal cause of action. So online research does not require any pre-analysis of the case most of the time, more than deciding which facts are the relevant ones. Perhaps Westlaw Next will reverse the trend that Bintliff points out, and require more original analysis by the researcher before formulating a query.

Keep in mind that Westlaw Next still allows you to do a terms & connectors search. It recognizes a boolean type search and does it, but adds the power of enriched terms by still mining the indexes, KeyCite, KeyNumber system to help enhance the search. It’s just that you are no longer required to select whether you are going to do a boolean search or a natural language search. You simply type in a query and the system runs it, no matter what type of search you entered.

You can also select a particular database to search if you wish. But why would you want to restrict the search since it does not charge you until you look into the database? One of the genius things about the design of Westlaw Next is that they did not close any doors. You can still do all the things we do in the current incarnation, I think, but we are not forced to make the choices that cause so much anxiety in the search process, especially for tyros.

I did not talk much in my previous post about the foldering system. This is a nice new feature. It really improves the organization tools for managing the information a researcher retrieves. Westlaw Next allows searchers to save their searches for up to one year, and to use the power of Westlaw to search through the searches saved. It also allows team members to share the results (as long as they all have Westlaw passwords). The foldering system is very cool. Your drag information into the folders as you do the research and drop it in, but you can also subdivide folders, or re-organize them as you go along, or afterward. Then, you can set up various kinds of programs to keep the searches up to date afterward, just as you do now, but continue to feed it into the folder system. Frankly this is probably the feature that will be simplest for Lexis to match.

Finally, just a little update. Yesterday, our academic rep stopped by. He told me that last Friday, the folks in Eagan made a decision that the law schools would not be charged for Westlaw Next. And that the new version could be administered in law schools in three different ways. Schools could adopt it completely. Or they could completely ignore it and stick with the Westlaw we have now. Or they could adopt it in part for some of the students, say the incoming 1-Ls, but not for current students. (Oooh, what a bad idea!, she says, editorially).

Westlaw Next does not do away with the need for librarians or folks to teach research skills. In fact, we will be as important as ever. We will just be teaching different skills in different areas. We will have new and different headaches.

I am decorating this blog post with screen shots from Westlaw Next. These are official screen shots courtesy of the folks from Eagan. They asked us not to take our own shots, but to use their official shots, so here they are. The other thing to know is that this will probably look different over time; they are changing Westlaw Next in response to comments they hear from users, like YOU! I understand that there are day passes for law school faculty and staff password holders at the Westlaw lawschool site, so see if you can take a test drive!

1 comment:

Marie S. Newman said...

Very reassuring post, Betsy. Thanks. If Westlaw Next will help to reinforce the concept that context is important in legal research, as Barbara Bintliff argues in her article, that is a good thing. I have found that students tend to think too narrowly about the law, and it sounds as if Westlaw Next will address this problem to some extent, at least.