Cindy Curling is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.
As a D.C. worker and Northern Virginia resident, I’m thinking fondly of technology this month. On September 11, when terrorist attacks hit first the two World Trade Center towers and then the Pentagon, I was glued to my radio at work. One of my brothers, David, was in New York working for the Port Authority near the towers and another brother, Carl, was working in the Pentagon. His office was on the side of the building where the plane crashed, half a corridor away. Happily, while the phones were only available intermittently, my much-maligned but free Hotmail account came through – by 11:30 a.m. I had an e-mail from David saying he was ok. And I will never say I hate answering machines again – “Carl is ok,” said the voice of his wife on their family machine, though we didn’t get through to hear that until nearly 5:30 p.m. My heart goes out to everyone who didn’t get such good news.
We’ve all been putting our priorities in perspective this past week. If you’re like me, what you’d like to do most is spend more time doing the important things, the things that feed your soul: spending time with your family, and, at home or work, doing the creative things you enjoy.
My column this month was to be a review of an experimental search tool, but I find instead that I’m thinking of one thing: how can I save time, every day, to have more available for what’s really important? One answer: to find more time, take advantage of the technologies available.
Some everyday technology decisions are no-brainers, things we should already be doing. However, many of us become so entrenched in routine, so overwhelmed by busy-ness, that we avoid learning the technologies that are there to help on the grounds that we just can’t take the time. If you haven’t learned the lesson before, surely you’ve seen this week that the time we have should never be wasted.
Little Things Add Up
Some time savings are small but accumulate enough over the weeks and months to be worth the effort. Think to yourself, “What do I do every day that I could hand over to a machine?” One example I’ve seen among librarians I know – lots of us are still running the same search in Lexis or Westlaw every day/week/month, faithfully marking it off our “To Do” lists, rather than using an electronic clipping service. Set up an automated search now, and save yourself that 10 minutes going forward, however often it occurs.
If you haven’t tried to set up an automated search on Westlaw or Lexis in a while, it may encourage you to know that the Web interface of both systems takes advantage of interactive templates that help make the process as convenient and intuitive as possible. Basically, you run your search - in a news, case or public record database, whatever – then click on the WestClip or Eclipse prompt and use the forms to fill in pertinent details about frequency, format and destination.
Many of us have clients who need a clipping service but do not feel comfortable searching for the information themselves. Librarians have for a long time set up alerts for those users from their own passwords. For groups of people who may all need to see the clip’s results, that makes some sense; they all see a cite list and the person under whose password an alert is set can easily retrieve the results online and send individual articles to those who need them. However, in instances where a single individual reviews results, keep in mind that either service can be customized from the user’s password (by the librarian if necessary). There are two advantages to this method. First, not so long ago the only delivery method for an electronic clipping service was a printout. Now, results can easily be delivered to the recipient via e-mail, or in the case of WestClips, to a wireless device like a Palm. Busy attorneys no longer need to go to a printer to find their results, and you don’t have to remember to pick them up off the printer or forward them. Second, retrieving the full text is easy enough for most people - even those who are not frequent Lexis or Westlaw searchers - to do themselves, though it may require some extra encouragement. Costs to generate cite lists range from free to minimal - check with your representative to confirm the pricing under your own contract. Full text retrieval is available, though more expensive.
What other automated services can you use to save time? You’ve already seen my list of electronic resources. Since reading newsletters takes a substantial amount of time, I signed up for e-mail alerts from as many of those services as possible. I don’t have to remember to visit the sites every day, and because a table of contents or summary is delivered to me, I only go to the original site if there’s actually something worth seeing.
Free newsletters are not the only services with e-mail alert functions. Many of you probably access some Web-based subscription services such as those available through BNA or CCH. To take full advantage of these expensive sources, use and encourage your users to sign up for their alert functions. Maybe the function is limited and only allows you to select from subject category options, or maybe it will alert you when new documents are added to the service according to search criteria you determine, but there’s likely some alert feature you could be using.
Another service, Quickbrowse (QB), can help you speed through the daily visits to Web pages you can not avoid. Some of the sites I use don’t have an alert feature, and QB appends together the pages from URLs I provide so that I see them each day as one long html e-mail. I scroll through it, click on the items I’m interested in, and use my back button to return to the email after each foray until I’ve finished. The important aspect of the service for me is that it comes to my inbox everyday so I don’t have to remember to visit myself. Sadly, QB has recently gone to a fee-based format, but at $12.95 per quarter, it’s probably worth the price.
One free alternative I’m considering is a feature of Backflip, a Web-based bookmark management tool, called “My Daily Routine” (MDR). Once when I worked at another firm and had less sense than I do now, I spent two days each workweek in Philadelphia and three in DC. In addition, I often traveled to our other branch offices to deliver training, so I carried a laptop. At home, I had yet another desk. Keeping my bookmarks straight was quite a challenge, and Backflip was one service that helped. Through it I could use one interface to add to and organize all my bookmarks. When they did get out of control, I could use it to put them back in sync. I recommend it or one of the other similar sources available for anyone who keeps extensive bookmarks or favorites on more than one computer. On top of that, the Daily Routine is what I used before Quickbrowse for my regular Web site review.
In each service you choose a list of URLs that you want to see in succession. To use MDR, you log in at Backflip, start your daily routine, and then click next or previous to go to each site, or pick any destination in the list from a drop down menu. In some ways, I like it better than QB – there are some sites I don’t need to see every day that I scroll through in my QB mail, but I wouldn’t be as good about checking the others if it wasn’t coming to my in-box.
The suggestions above will save a little time from your day, but if you really want to have more time with your family and can not afford to work part time, consider telecommuting. If I worked from home, I would save about an hour and a half each day in commute time. Even my husband would save an hour – he drives me to the Metro station and then backtracks to get to his own office. While it isn’t a practical option right now for me, many of you may find that it is something worth investigating.
In the Washington, D.C. area, there is increasing pressure from the top down on governments at all levels to find ways for more employees to work from home. Traffic congestion and pollution are the main culprits, but there is a grass roots effort as well from people like us who would rather spend more time with their families and less on the road. While employers are often not comfortable with an employee working full time from home, many can tolerate a split schedule. If you’re interested, get together a reasonable proposal and broach the issue with your supervisor.
To help you get started, take a look at some of the following sites:
About.com’s Telecommuting Page not only contains links to online resources for those interested in telecommuting, but also stories and advise from those who do, and information on alternatives such as flextime, a compressed workweek or job sharing.
The AT&T Telework Webguide was created out of the experiences of AT&T where %11 of managers work from home full time. The experience has worked so well for them that they offer these tools to encourage other business to begin telecommuting programs.
June Langhoff’s Telecommuting Resource Center offers sensible advice for telecommuting “wannabees” including practical tips on work etiquette, scheduling, video-conferencing and more. The site also includes a terrifically practical FAQ with links to tons of telecommuting study information.
More Articles, Features, Tips and Web Sites on Telecommuting from Workforce Magazine.
The ideas above are just a few of the ways you can save your time for the important things in life, and are all from my own perspective. If you manage accounts and invoices or spend lots of time managing documents, there are many additional tools available that can drastically reduce the clerical time you spend, though the best of these can be very costly. If you have more quick tips or inexpensive resources to add to the list, please let me know. Either way, I hope this helps in some small part as we all take stock in the coming days.