Features - The "Perfect" Intranet?

Angela A. Hodge is the Law Library Manager at an Oregon law firm.  She received her B.A. degree in political science from the University of California at San Diego, her J.D. degree from Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College, and M.L.S. degree from Emporia State University. Ms. Hodge has also worked as an adjunct professor of law teaching advanced legal research at Northwestern School of Lewis & Clark College. She has presented at the Oregon Libraries Association's state-wide conference and has taught basic legal research on numerous occasions at Marylhurst University. 

See also the accompanying discussion forum on this topic.

Remember when the Internet went from a hideously arranged concoction of sites to something more manageable and easily navigable via the introduction of Web browser software? I understand that some argue that the situation regarding the Web is not much improved even with Web browser software. However, I believe that the introduction of these tools changed everything about how the Internet was used, and because of that, the number of people using the Web grew exponentially. I have such hopes for Intranets.

To quote Kathleen Anton from Intranet Design Magazine,

"With Intranet technology, the vision of putting knowledge at the fingertips of every employee and accessing it on the desktop has become reality. Workers can truly be 'empowered' through timely access to the information they need to do their work - whenever and wherever they need it." 1

But, from everything I've seen so far, most Intranets are just not there yet. There is a great deal of potential for growth, organization and management of information. However, many people responsible for Intranet development and maintenance state that they remain somewhat dissatisfied with the current state of their Intranet. Fortunately, it seems that many law librarians have either been chosen, or have chosen of their own accord, to take on their Intranets as part of their everyday job duties.

After looking at a great deal of material from colleagues' sites, it seems that as far as content is concerned, everyone is doing much of the same type of thing. Most Intranets have links to Web sites, organization of school/firm tools, and links to law library materials like catalogs, Lexis / Westlaw and electronic-based subscriptions. These are some basics that seem consistent across the board. The consistencies listed here were mentioned by those that spoke to me about their Intranets and also were reiterated in an article by P.G. Daly.2 These basic and uniform practices include:

  1. An awareness that content is of utmost importance. Getting the content from those that are the experts in that particular area is best, but if we have to be sheepherders, that's what we've done to get the content. 

  2. We have had to train authors in each of the different Intranet areas to become comfortable with getting their information online. When this hasn't happened, or has been met with too much resistance, many of us have simply taken the task on for ourselves. 

  3. There does seem to be some room for automation when dealing with Intranets. I didn't hear much about librarians creating templates for different groups. Doing so might allow those reluctant to use technology to feel more comfortable with a paper template in front of them. We need to come farther at "eliminating the authoring obstacle"

Many law librarians seem to be dealing with the same challenges. It seems that there's just too much information, not enough participation from groups within organizations and not enough time to conceptualize, organize and produce pages that will be of use to everyone in the particular institution. While this might seem like a negative statement, I don't see it as such. I see it as an opportunity for immense growth and it reminded me of another opportunity which most law librarians have zealously taken into their own hands.

When I put up my first Web page over four years ago, I had help. Even though I felt like I was a savvy end user, I was still overwhelmed with the task of actually producing the layout, content and navigation tools necessary for a successful and useful Web page. AND - this is part of what I do for a living! At present I have more than four Web sites that I have developed, launched and struggle to maintain. However, there is still the fear that I believe is inherent in staring at any blank page or computer screen. What am I going to do with this? How am I going to organize the information? When am I going to find the time to accomplish all this? Who's going to keep the information current after the page is launched?

I've found that those same concerns are the concerns echoed time and time again when peers spoke to me about their Intranets. Those that have Intranets all stated variations of the same phrase, "It's a work in progress." That, however, is the nature of the Internet or Intranet that we all seem to have trouble reconciling. The Web is not static, so why should our Intranets be expected to be finished products? Once reliable information is obtained (and that is a task, in and of itself!), there are easily hundreds of ways that information can be organized. Who is given the task of organizing the information will often answer the questions of what is the "correct" way to accomplish such a task. Take two hardcopy user guides on the same topic from different libraries, and I can guarantee you that each user guide will be significantly different from the other. Add to this mix the fact that most responses and research indicate that librarians have a great deal of the responsibility for organizing information on Intranets, but are often not the originators of content. This fact is especially true when it comes to items like staff manuals, practice group Intranet pages, forms, etc.

So what are law librarians doing when it comes to Intranets? Seems that most of us are doing what we've always done best. We are gathering information from practice groups, academic and staff departments. We're doing the basic repackaging of information obtained from other sources. We're organizing information from within and outside the institution and adding value via some editorial enhancements (i.e., indexing and abstracting). We're acting as conciliators, facilitators and visionaries.

Most law librarians have had a great deal to do with their law library's information and organizational presence on their Intranet. However, many law librarians have also lobbied for, and received, a great deal of control over their Intranets as a whole. Some of this control seems to have been spurred on by lack of interest, time, or resources from IS departments. Some of the control was received due to simple lack of input from others. Obviously, we've all had a great deal of experience working with Web sites and this has, at least, taught us what we don't like and why.

Sometimes it seems easier to state what we don't want and that was certainly another common chord stated by the law librarians to whom I spoke. As a group, we don't like linear arrangements of information. We don't like having to go through more than two or three links to get to the body of the information for which we're seeking. We don't like wildly disparate styles and lack of cohesive format. We don't like having to guess at which links will take us where. We don't like search engines that don't produce results we know exist. We don't like being in charge of browbeating groups into providing content.

We have noticed that social aspects like employee bulletin boards and classifieds tend to get the most use on our Intranets. We have found that forms for new library acquisitions or reference requests aren't being used as much as we'd hoped. We have done an excellent job of culling links to external Web sites and paring down that information in a user-friendly form for our intended clientele. We have tried to eliminate useless graphics that slow down loading time while keeping enough visual interest to entice reluctant users. We are constantly re-evaluating the integrity, currency and usefulness of the information. We often are responsible for making the actual changes on the Intranet. We have learned HTML or utilized Web authoring software of many different types. We are somewhat dissatisfied with our progress, but happy that each revision seems to be an improvement. We are resigned to the fact that this project will never be "done." We are painfully aware that management of a well-oiled Intranet could easily be a full time job. With all of this being said and acknowledged, we continue to persevere towards producing our own "perfect" Intranets.

Footnotes

1Kathleen Anton, Effective Intranet Publishing: Getting Critical Knowledge to Any Employee, Anywhere, INTRANET DESIGN MAGAZINE (May 5, 2000) http://idm.internet.com<back to text>

2 P.G. Daly , P.G. Daly's Intranet Talk: Creating and Managing Content, INTRANET DESIGN MAGAZINE (May 5, 2000)  http://idm.internet.com. <back to text>
 
Bibliography
 
Kathleen Anton, Effective Intranet Publishing: Getting Critical Knowledge to Any Employee, Anywhere, Intranet Design Magazine (May 5, 2000) http://idm.internet.com.  

Robert C. Berring, The Paperless Chase: Don't Throw Out the Librarian with the Library, California Lawyer at 51 (June 2000).

P.G. Daly, P.G. Daly's Intranet Talk: Creating and Managing Content, Intranet Design Magazine (May 5, 2000) http://idm.internet.com. <back to text>

Mark Hall, Intranet Developers Say Systems, Security Top Priorities; Suggested Usage, Requirements are Still Expanding, ComputerWorld at 28 (March 6, 2000).

Cynthia Morgan, Sound and (sometimes) Fury: Sound Adds a Useful Dimension to Corporate Intranets . . . and a Few Gray Hairs for IT, Computerworld at 66 (August 23, 1999).

PC WORLD, Top 5 Intranet Do's and Don'ts (March 1997).

PC WORLD, Think First Before Launching Your Intranet (June 1998).

Paul I. Tao, Intranet Corner: Tools you Should be Aware of When you Build an Intranet, Intranet Design Magazine (May 5, 2000) http://idm.internet.com.

Linda Will, The Intranet: The 'Alice' of the Wonderland, Part 3, Vol. 6, No. 4 Legal Division Quarterly, The Newsletter of the Legal Division of the Special Libraries Association (Spring 2000).

Many thanks to the following Law Librarians: 

  • Steven Anderson, Librarian, Gordon Feinblatt Rothman Hoffberger & Hollander, LLC. Baltimore, MD. 
  • Carol Bean, Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips, L.L.P. Baton Rouge, LA. 
  • Kevin Butterfield, Assistant Professor, Systems/Technical Services Librarian. Southern Illinois University School of Law Library. Carbondale, IL. 
  • David C. Clark, JD, MLIS. Law Librarian. Lightfoot, Franklin & White, L.L.C. Birmingham, AL. 
  • Lynn Fogle, Manager of Library Services, Greenebaum Doll & McDonald, Lexington, KY 
  • LaJean Humphries, Law Librarian, Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. Portland, OR. 
  • Rick McKinney, Assistant Law Librarian. Federal Reserve Board Law Library.