Features - A Review of West's Intranet ToolKit

Susan Charkes is the Systems Librarian for Dechert Price & Rhoads in Philadelphia. Ms. Charkes practiced law in New York City for 7 years before becoming involved in the information professions. She has held positions in technology consulting and electronic publishing, as well as in corporate information services for Warner-Lambert Co. and other organizations. She received a BA in English from The University of Chicago, a JD from Columbia University and an MLS from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Ms. Charkes is Director/Web Manager of the Philadelphia Chapter of Special Libraries Association.


Introduction

A daunting problem for research Intranet developers is that there is a significant gulf between the kinds resources we use. Internet-accessible research sources fall into roughly two types. On the one hand there are the topical, subject-specific sites, of which there are multitudes, and on the other hand, there are general-purpose databases, much fewer in number. For the most part this divide has been between the for-free and the for-a-fee. The most useful public-domain research Websites have tended, with rare exception, to be focused on subject specialties, while such giant vendors as Westlaw, Lexis-Nexis, Dialog and Dow Jones have continued their historic bent toward aggregation even as they move to Web interfaces.

As a result, constructing a research strategy using both kinds of resources often entails awkward jumps back and forth between types of resources and, consequently, types of thinking patterns. Nor is it easy to build Intranet pages that support integrated research.

With the advent of such products as West’s Intranet Toolkit, we may begin to be able to move toward a new stage in Intranet development, one that will make it possible to leverage the Intranet as a research infrastructure. West and other vendors (notably Dialog and to a lesser extent, Lexis-Nexis) have created methodologies and support systems that enable the Intranet-builder to create hooks into all kinds of different levels and types of research resources.

In this article, I will describe West’s product and consider its implications for Intranet development. I will only make the briefest comparisons with other products, but you can probably expect to see a good number of these in the coming months.

The Toolkit

West’s Intranet Toolkit (WIT) is a set of forms and templates that make it possible to create links to "specific documents, queries or Westlaw databases; sections of the Westlaw Directory; or any other Web site." The WIT has two levels. One is a simple yet expandable set of resources for creating hooks to Westlaw databases on your Intranet, for which it helps to have some HTML knowledge. The other is a wizard that is designed for someone without much Web page-creation background to create Intranet pages to access Westlaw.

Wizards

Let’s look at the Wizard first. As with any Wizard, the idea is to make a task easier by eliminating the need to figure out how to get from here to there. It takes you through a series of formatting options - colors, banners, images (you can use your own), and a series of options for topics and databases, even specific documents, also research controls (e.g., find a citation), and finally, links to any other URL. Then a Westlaw server creates your very own Intranet page. It’s all quite painless. Note, though, that the more links you add, the longer it takes the server to create your page; with very large pages you may encounter a timeout.

Although you could employ this tool to create one huge page for all your (Westlaw) research needs, that is probably not wise unless you include only a small number of links. Otherwise the page becomes too large to be usable. A better design goal would be to use the Wizard to create several smaller pages with topical focus. Here, however, a limitation of the WIT comes into play. The WIT Wizard is great for making pages but it is not a tool for building Web sites. It doesn’t have anything built in to make it easy to connect several pages together into a whole. For this, one needs to edit the HTML or use a site-building tool like FrontPage or NetObjects Fusion. Since the Wizard is designed for the user who either has no HTML skills or no access to a development team, this could be a problem.

The more intriguing aspect of the WIT is what it can do for the Intranet developer who has some skills or experience. There are four types of tools provided: Link Builder, Research Pages, Research Controls and Research Links.

Link Builder is a Wizard-like form that generates HTML code that can be pasted into any page. Link Builder enables the developer to creates a number of different kinds of links. You can, for instance, create a link that is a shortcut to any Westlaw.com database; having bypassed the database-selection screen the researcher formulates a search in the normal way. With Link Builder one can also create document retrieval links for any valid citation on Westlaw.com. You can also create pre-built searches, using query links for any Terms and Connectors or Natural Language search; with this type of link the researcher is taken directly to the search results screen. Link Builder can also be used to create links to any other site on the World Wide Web. While this last feature is probably the least technically interesting, it is significant in that it illustrates the support for multiple-source integration that West is taking with its approach.

Research Pages are templates for constructing topic-specific pages consisting of links to Westlaw databases. Available Research Pages include a variety for news and information, dozens of practice areas, and state-law pages organized by jurisdiction. Similar to the pages generated by the Wizard, these can function as ready-made inserts for your Intranet, but are more likely to find use cut, pasted and customized to fit your existing organizational scheme.

Research Controls are formlets: one line forms, that can be incorporated into a page to check a citation using KeyCite or Shepard’s, search for a Westlaw database, access a database by entering its database identifier or search news and information sources in West’s ALLNEWS database. Again, West provides the HTML code needed to paste these controls in the appropriate spot.

Finally, Research Links are links to Westlaw forms that allow the user to formulate certain types of queries offline, then connect to Westlaw to execute them. Using these forms the searcher can bypass the normal database-selection and query-formulation process in favor of simply completing relevant information. The forms are used for standard searches that are susceptible of standardized syntax such as searching for a case by party name and jurisdiction, searching for corporate records by name ands state, and similar searches. The forms themselves are on a public West server which means that West can modify the forms as needed (e.g. to add jurisdictions). To link to the forms is just a matter of copying and pasting the appropriate West-supplied code.

Using the West Intranet Toolkit (WIT)

It should be obvious by now that the WIT enables you to mix and match the prepared code and either create West-specific pages, or integrate the West links into other pages. In the case of my Intranet-building team, we have done both. Where appropriate we have taken wholesale lists of West databases from the Research Pages and edited them to fit our way of describing resources. In other cases we have incorporated one or more links and formlets into pages that have links to related resources, including non-West and free sites. West does more than tolerate this customization, indeed they actively encourage the developer to change the text of links, and plug them in where it makes sense to do so.

For example, my group has created a Web page for caselaw research that includes a Research Control for KeyCite as well as a formlet to search Shepard’s on Lexis, a Research Link to search a case by title, and links to free caselaw Web sites. Another example is a page we created to support environmental research; we incorporated links to the environmental agency Websites as well as to Westlaw’s ENFLEX databases containing each state’s environmental regulations.

Since the code is basic standard HTML, it is simple to customize. For example, the out-of-the-box Research Control gives you the ability to set up a search of one database. The ENFLEX databases described above are state-specific. Rather than listing all state databases separately, I created a formlet with a listbox where all the researcher has to do is select the state. The selection corresponds to the appropriate database code which then gets passed as a parameter value when the form is activated. It was easy to copy and paste the database codes for the states using West’s offline database directory. Another example: Although West supplies sample links to topical news databases, the supplied links give you only the ability to search the database. Also supplied in the Toolkit is a template for current news. Using the syntax employed by West’s template for Current News Databases, I modified the link to go to the current issue by adding the "read" query to the command syntax , so researchers now have links to both a searchable archive and a browseable current issue for many topical news databases. And these links are embedded within the environmental news page along with non-West environmental news sources including internal databases and external Websites.

West’s business model for this tool is intriguing. The Intranet Toolkit is a giveaway, available from West or downloadable from their Web site. This is one of its great attractions. Since you don’t have to make a substantial investment in the tool, it promotes experimentation and prototyping. It enables one to use as much or as little of West’s resources as is appropriate.

A Few Shortcomings

As customizable as the Toolkit is, I’d like to see more variability in the way it can be used. There should be easy options to enable the developer to drop in multiple-choice selections such as listboxes, radio buttons and checkboxes. If the WIT were designed more modularly, it would be easier to customize and use for creating either built-in searches or search formlets by combining appropriate modules. For example, it would be useful if there were modules for date-range search limits, jurisdiction-selections and field searching – rather than having to rely on Westlaw’s search syntax. Finally, there is nothing in the Toolkit that enables a developer to bring the researcher back to the Intranet once a Westlaw task has been completed, a feature which would further support the integration of resources.

Other Products

A brief comparison of some of the other "toolkits" suggests that there is wide variation in approach, typical of emerging technologies. The other giant in the legal information field, Lexis-Nexis, offers Intranet development tools which by comparison to West’s are somewhat crude, but they are effective. They can be found at http://www.lexis.com/research/linking/. The tools consist of a set of instructions and sample code for creating links. Unlike West, which sugar-coats the basic syntax in templates and wizards, requiring the developer to discover the logic behind them, Lexis lays out the HTML code, the search syntax and the parameters that can be used to create links and formlets. Using the Lexis linking tools has a steeper learning curve than using the WIT, but many of the same kinds of results can be achieved. And, once one gets the hang of the syntax, it is easy to spin out variations on a theme. (Note: West told me that it will also be documenting its linking syntax so as to enable this kind of development.) Lexis, unlike West, does provide methods to redirect the user to the Intranet once a Lexis search has been completed. A major deficiency of the Lexis toolkit is that it requires you, the developer, to identify appropriate Lexis-Nexis database library and file names. It’s not difficult, but West has taken the extra work out of the process with its topical link lists.

Another recent entry to this Intranet Toolkit arena is Dialog, which offers a similar product to West’s but uses a different business model. Dialog’s Intranet Toolkit supports the creation of links to Dialog databases, and also enables the professional searcher to build behind-the-scenes search strategies for end-users. The DIT gives more refined control than West does in such aspects as controlling the display formats for search results. The Dialog toolkit appears to be similar to the WIT Wizard in that one is led through steps to the eventual creation of Web pages that can be incorporated into other pages, or used as stand-alone pages. A significant difference from West and Lexis is that Dialog has chosen to sell its product, rather than provide it as a free research-support tool. While the market for these tools is young, I seriously doubt that Dialog’s business model can sustain itself for very long. I suspect many customers will resent having to pay for a tool that in a very real sense means that users are paying to do their own interface development as well as make it easier for researchers to use Dialog and thus generate revenue for them.

Dow Jones offers a much more sophisticated variation on the theme; its Intranet Toolkit is less a toolkit than an in-house mechanic. The organization using the Dow Jones product installs software on a specialized server. The Intranet administrator can then set up indexed news retrieval services that feed to the Intranet. News can be integrated seamlessly into the site along with research links. It is a step beyond the West model but entails a substantial commitment to the Dow Jones service.

Dow Jones’s toolkit is itself a small-scale type of a new crop of content management systems. These sorts of products typically require your organization to install proprietary software in addition to the Intranet server, which act as the researchers’ agents to obtain content. The systems use their own content-organizing principles that are overlaid onto the Intranet. Content is dynamically dropped into appropriate slots when the researcher seeks access to it. An example of this approach is nMatrix. By contrast, WIT can be utilized with any Intranet that uses HTML links as its basic building blocks. Since WIT does not require a large investment in software or training, it can be quickly deployed and can work as easily with an existing Intranet as with one just being built.

Implications

West’s Intranet Toolkit is one of the first vendor-created tools that directly supports the connection-making, context-building activities of the information professional. What these tools offer is the power to easily integrate access to subject-specific and task-specific external resources within your Intranet. They let you put content into context, by enabling you to create a holistic system of information access. You can dispense with the vendor’s proprietary interface to some degree, and substitute your organization’s design objectives, business goals and information needs.

Information aggregators built their business on the common interface to thousands of primary sources. Now, we are beginning to see some of the long-predicted effects of the Internet on the aggregators. The monolithic structure is beginning to break down and the vendors are starting to support connections to the sources. The big database vendors will continue to face great pressure to demonstrate where they add value. Currency, authenticity, reliability and comprehensiveness (within databases) are still important differentiators arguing in favor of using the for-fee resources. By facilitating access at the resource level rather than just the service level, it is now feasible to compare pricing and features at a much finer-grained level than we have been used to.

For vendors, these toolkits offer not only parity with free Internet resources but also the ability to gain real estate for the product without having to sell or even develop extensive interfaces. Both the vendor and customer benefit from this kind of business model because the vendor builds relationships and the Intranet-developer creates information interfaces that respond more closely to researchers’ information needs. For the Intranet-builder, the toolkits support more of a partnership relationship with vendors than was possible before. In short, the advent of the Intranet Toolkit signals not just a new product but a shift in the balance of power between information-suppliers and information-consumers. By exploiting this new power creatively, Intranet developers can significantly affect the efficiency and efficacy of the research process.

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West’s Intranet Toolkit Version reviewed: 2.01 for Windows 95 - Download from http://www.westgroup.com/intranettools/Welcome.html