Taxonomy Letters

What follows is an exchange of emails (some excerpted) that preceded the launching of Slaw. I asked the group of core contributors about taxonomy — coming from “blogging,” I felt the need for categories. You can see how vexed the matter of taxonomy is and how interesting the discussion was getting to be, when, too anxious about ushering my baby into the light of day, I let a few days’ radio silence signal the end of the exchange, and imposed my own views.

Connie Crosby, as you’ll see, had the bright idea to post the exchange. It will act as an aid to others fretting the same sort of questions, perhaps, and will also serve as an archive of early documents about Slaw.

We’ll revisit the matter of taxonomy again, after some months of posting with the current scheme. Readers of Slaw should please feel free to offer us the benefit of their advice on the matter — better still, they should join Slaw and revisit taxonomy with the rest of us.

Simon Fodden to the group
(June 14, 2005) —
original invitation

I invite you to consider
participating with me and others in a weblog
focused, roughly speaking, on Canadian legal research using technology.
I’m planning to launch the thing, named SLAW, fairly soon — provided I
can entice a number of knowledgeable, interested people to contribute to
it on a more or less regular basis.

If you know of Sabrina Pacifici’s and in the

States, then you have a rough idea of what I’m hoping to start in
Canada. I’d steal her description of LLRX, but that’d be wrong. So
here’s my stab at capturing the idea of SLAW:

SLAW is to be a
weblog generally concerned with the use of the internet and other
technology in legal research and the management of legal knowledge. It will make no attempt to be
comprehensive — but hopes to be up-to-date and often in the
vanguard. SLAW is to be a
cooperative venture, drawing on expertise from across Canada.
And SLAW will act
primarily as an eclectic notification tool, referring readers to other sites
and resources as they come to our attention, but will occasionally
offer extended pieces that might variously instruct, meditate,
criticise or provoke. A little light-heartedness in style
wouldn’t hurt.

I envisage perhaps half a dozen core contributors, assisted by any
number of irregulars. Core contributors would post directly; irregulars
would submit posts to me for checking. (I will manage the thing, unless
someone else arm-wrestles me for the privilege and wins.) Contributors
would post short notices about items that they’ve come across or notions
that they’ve had likely to interest others. There would be no need to
develop any themes across posts.

Simon Fodden to the group
(June 30, 2005):

…Finally, before I wish
you a happy Canada Day weekend, can I give you something to mull over
while you’re BBQing? Weblogs typically categorize their posts, and I’ll
want to do that on Slaw, using two levels: categories and
sub-categories. But the issue of taxonomy raises its Hydra head. We
could let posters categorize ad lib — it’s apparently called
“folksonomy” — but I’m way too AR to love that idea. Does anyone have
a relatively simple set of categories for this area that might make
sense to start with? Remember: the notion is legal research using IT,
emphasis on Canadian, with a secondary focus on knowledge management
and IT. Let me know your thoughts on this.

Simon Chester to Simon
Fodden, copy to the group (July 2, 2005):

…I’ve been wondering
about the taxonomy for your new legal research forum and strugling to
come up with a coherent structure for discussions of what we do.

My work with the knowledge management folks suggests that we shouldn’t
be too ambitious in attempting to divide up the world of Canadian legal
research, what we know and what we do.

Even a division of four too levels and a second level of four would
yield 16 categories.

What would the categories look like.

On a long Lufthansa flight I am likely misremembering the pioneering
work that William Twining did for the Law Commission in 1971 on the
Division and Classification of the Law but how we divide up what we
know and what we do has consequences for possible outcomes.  

So what might a Legal Research Forum look like. What subjects or topics
might it focus on?

If email wasn’t so resolutely linear – I’d try and draw the following
distinctions which are all ways of approaching legal research. A rough
chart on a white board would give is a much better exchange of views.

I’m not attracted to the traditional split between primary and
secondary materials, nor to the civiliste splits between legislation,
jurisprudence and doctrine, or juge, gendarme and legislateur.

Perhaps its better to follow the Wrens and talk about a split between
the three phases of research: strategy, search (or location) and
analysis.  Traditional legal research teaching has
overstressed the second of these.

I would like this forum to bridge the chasm that has grown since Harry
Arthurs’ Law and Learning report between what he called recherche
sublime and the recherche ponctuelle that he dismissed as the work of
Bay Street.  We’ve not been well served by that blind alley of
a distinction.

We could I suppose look more broadly at sources.  Like the Max
Planck folks we could look at domestic, foreign (particularly important
for natural comparativists like Canadian lawyers) and international
law, to which in a time of globalization and private ordering, we
should probably add transnational law.

As digital production and web-based distribution systems grow the old
distinctions between the producers or creators of the law and the
publishers becomes artificial particularly in smaller legal markets
like Canada. Canlii is very important….

Ultimately we should let the task ahead help define the organization.
Form follows function.

What do we want this forum to do?  Who are we talking to?

In a world of instant indexing we may need to go back to that great
line from Thomas Stevens the 19th century holder of the Oxford
Jurisprudence chair. The common law lawyer’s idea of an ideal body of
law is chaos with a full index. If we can start a dialogue about the
defects, challenges and prospects for legal research, encompassing the
body of the law, the strategies of legal research and the tools and
Technologies we’d have a lot to talk about.

When we did this on Counsel Connect a dozen years ago we would simply
let an open forum coalesce around themes as the discussions rolled on.
With a robust search utility locating threads shouldn’t be problematic.

Nick Pengelley to Simon
Fodden, copy to the group (July 4, 2005):

…I confess to not much
mulling of taxonomy over the weekend – the thoughts that I did have are
much the same as those of Simon Chester from 30,000 feet! So much of
what we talk about is likely to be capable of categorisation in so many
different ways that we risk turning this into a problem for an expert
cataloguer – and although I’m a librarian I’ve always been content to
stay away from that end of things. I’m going to vote for the
freewheeling approach – let’s go for it and see what evolves.

Ted Tjaden to the group
(July 4, 2005):

Further to the emails from
Simon and Nick, I would add the following
comments for what they are worth:

  1. Simple is always good. If the solution can be automated
    dealt with by technology, so much the better.
  2. It might help if, in advance, we think of the types of
    items that might be posted and where they would be “put” or “archived”
    (if at all). This is the opposite approach to Simon Chester’s and may
    not be the purest way of thinking about the topic, but it is practical.
    I thought of a few “pairs” of categories that might define some of our
    subject matter (this is obviously not an exhaustive list):
  • – print versus online
  • – practitioner versus academic/scholarly
  • – primary versus secondary
  • – domestic versus foreign versus international

On the assumption that we would not intend to “censor” submissions, I
assume any of the following might be topics that any of us might post
(although I acknowledge some of the topics below may be on the
periphery of being relevant – I do this intentionally to test the
boundaries or scope of what we might present and try to organize; i.e.,
if we created categories, under which categories would the following
“submissions” be put?):

  • – case comments or interesting cases
  • – new ways of teaching LRW
  • – plagiarism in legal writing (I am working on this topic
  • – critical comments on a new database or significant LRW
  • – legal citation
  • – use of technology in LRW
  • – conference news/updates
  • – IP issues (e.g., new Copyright Act amendments)
  • – link rot on the Internet as it affects LRW (something
    else I am
  • working on)
  • – book reviews
  • – role of legal research lawyers in law firms

I am open to comments or suggestions.

Connie Crosby to the
group (July 5, 2005):

I have
been racking my brain to think of an existing taxonomy that
would be suitable for us, but doubt there would be such a beast since
this is a very specific area within a very specific subject
area.  We would likely have to either make up our own or “wing
it”.  I do think having a blog *without* some simple
categories to pull related postings together does lack something…I
discovered that in my own use of the Blogger application, which does
not allow for categories.  I like Ted’s suggestion of coming
up with some basic categories to start, and am glad to see Simon F. is
contemplating this subject arrangement (pun intended).

My own ideas of what I/we might post are slightly different than what
has already been discussed.  This is the sort of thing I am
“in tune” with and hope to contribute in addition to what has already
been mentioned:

– changes to online services, developments vendors are working on, and
possibly changes to their legal agreements (with a bias toward law
firms).  For example, not everyone knows LexisNexis Canada is
working on a single interface for Lexis and Quicklaw.  I have
been speaking with them as to what model they are going to use to price
this “new” product;

– changes/issues with electronic services used in a law firm, not
necessarily containing legal information.  For example,
Factiva (a joint venture of Reuters and Dow Jones which most law firm
libraries use for accessing news articles) last year sold rights to
LexisNexis.  This means that after February 2006 the Factiva
interface will no longer be available to law firms (and only law
firms).  Personally I find this very odd, that just because we
are in a certain industry sector, we are not being “allowed” to buy a
subscription to a service by the vendor.  We are being forced
to move to the interface, which functions and is priced very
differently. I believe the Canadian and U.S. markets are being
considered separately by LexisNexis in resolving the resulting
problems.  This is just one example.  I would like to
report on news from vendors, and possibly reactions from the user

– use of technology in administrating law libraries.  For
example, tracking development and use of RFID tags (radio frequency
identification tags).  RFID tags are chips that are expected
to replace bar codes in supply chain management.  They contain
data which can be changed and can be read by “scanners” at a
distance.  I am interested in the use of this technology with
books, and have been watching developments regarding library use of
this application.  In the U.S. public libraries this
development has been stalled because of concerns with
privacy.   Nevertheless, I believe publishers should
be including RFID tags on books (like any other manufactured good) and
including basic bibliographic information which can be uploaded to our
catalogues, “tweaked” for our individual catalogues, and then loaded
back onto the RFID tags.  In a small organization such as a
law firm, the ideal set-up would mean no need to sign out books–we
could just use the scanners to determine book locations. 
Okay, my real dream is to use satellites to track books, but that might
not be for a while yet….

I am interested to know if these ideas fit with the overall
vision.  If so, it would be good to account for these types of
postings with the categories created.

By the way, Simon F., this whole discussion of taxonomies might make
for a good posting on Slaw at some point.  I’m sure many
others struggle with the same issues.

Simon Fodden to the group
(July 5, 2005):

It might be a good idea to
put my oar in early in the discussion, if only to let you know what my
own expectations were for suggesting Slaw and what the limits of the
technology are.

Simon C. … has some very good points, many of which assume that Slaw
is a discussion forum on legal research generally. While Slaw may
(rapidly) turn into such a thing, it wasn’t quite what I had in mind
originally. My own expectations were far more modest, which may or may
not be a good thing.

First of all the focus: my own interest is in the technological aspects
of legal research. I had thought that Slaw might talk about
developments in IT (from the small to the large, from the mundane to
the profound) that facilitate and impinge on legal research and the
“management of knowledge.” I realize that everything is connected to
everything else and wouldn’t have minded the gravy getting into the
peas somewhat, but IT and legal data was my focus.

Second the audience and aim: I had envisaged Slaw not so much as a
forum but rather as a weblog to share information. The idea had been to
have us and those who join us “face out,” as it were, to contribute
news, findings, discoveries not simply to our group but to the larger
world of legal researchers in practice, government, academe etc. (Hence
my references in my invitation to LLRX and BeSpacific, which are both
blogs, albeit one-person blogs.) This is a very modest goal, I
understand, and may not be very interesting to some.

This said, I also have also to say that I’m not opposed to an expanded
focus or to the cultivation of dialogues sparked by postings. There is
a limitation in weblog software that makes it less than ideal as a
forum, having to do with the fact that discussions (i.e. contributions
by way of “comments” on a posting) are not threaded, which makes things
not always easy to follow. But the ability of readers to submit
comments (once registered) and the ability to subscribe to comments in
RSS mean that we can have something like the sort of discussion Simon
C. assumes. If things “take off,” we could alter things and add a forum
tool to make threaded discussion easier — even a wiki, as Simon C.
suggests. But I do advise that we start with modest expectations in
this regard. All of you are busy people, and getting you to share the
odd discovery or link to something potentially useful on the web would
be accomplishment enough to begin with. Those who have an appetite for
it, of course, can expatiate, argue, propound and otherwise post at
length (I’ll have some technical suggestions about doing that, in a
while); just don’t regard Slaw as a failure if a posting doesn’t
generate the sort of discussion you’d hoped for.

Taxonomy? My question flowed, not entirely naively, out of the
weblogging practice of categorizing postings — showing you my
assumption about Slaw’s aims and purpose. I was wondering about
technological topics such as “search engines”, “Boolean queries”,
“searching” generally, “APIs”, “federated searching” etc. etc. Whatever
the aim of Slaw turns out to be, I accept the daring suggestions of
Simon C. and Nick to go about without the armature of categories. We
will be able to search posts, which should likely enable us to retrieve
what we want most of the time; and, to answer Ted’s question, because
in weblogs it’s easy to archive by date posts in Slaw will be so
archived — month and year.If we want, I can probably set it up to also
archive by contributor as well.

It might make sense, though, to have two basic categories: the default,
which would be unlabelled, for postings that are brief and contain
relatively straightforward information (about useful resources, etc.
etc.); and a category, labelled “essay” (?), for longer postings that
seek to generate discussion and thought (which may not be the same
thing). Depending on how many essays get posted, I’d undertake to make
sure that they’re listed somewhere so that they’re easy to find.

One further thought about retrieval of posts: if people title their
posts clearly, this will help. I have a tendency, for example, to title
posts humorously — i.e. the stuff that usually goes to the left of the
colon in the donnish academic-type title. This is not a good idea, and
I’m working hard to be plain and simple. (Helps those searching via
Google, too.)

Steve Matthews to the
group (July 19, 2005):

For what it’s worth, LLRX
has produced a substantial content collection with a limited (but easy
to use) classification. Letting users get bogged down in multi-level
categorization might be a mistake (my view anyway…).  The
other important point to consider is that categories can be added or
removed as our content production and direction dictates. The beauty of
being digital…

The simple approach has been suggested already, and I’d definitely
agree. So… out on a limb I go here, with my 10 minute list of
basic/broad categories.  Easy on the flames :-)

* Canadian Law
* Conference Corner
* Copyright
* Digital Practice
* Legal KM
* Product Reviews
* Research & Writing
* Search Engines
* WebTech & Trends

I’m a big believer in the KISS principle (Keep It Simple for Steve).

Simon Fodden to Steven
Matthews, copy to the group (July 19, 2005):

Thanks for this. I’m in
complete agreement about KISS. I’ve sliced the baloney on a somewhat
different angle, though the chunks are similarly thick.

I was going to send round an email to everyone to propose a simple set
of categories with a twist. So this is the email. Please let me know
what you think about this.

I propose 6 basic categories, all modalities of dealing with legal
information (the use of technology being understood):

  • finding
  • organizing
  • communicating
  • storing
  • controlling
  • understanding

One twist is the division of all categories by nature into “info-posts”
and “essays”: the former, the default aspect, would be short or
shortish posts simply sharing information or brief opinions, the latter
longer pieces that might explain, rant, persuade, etc. etc. (I’d
propose only showing the main category names on the sidebar, leaving
the split into info-posts and essays to be revealed and pursued on the
particular category archive page; the precise category, though — e.g.
finding or finding [essay] would appear at the bottom of a post on

A second twist is the use of keywords. I’ve enabled us to use whatever
keywords the poster likes to describe the topic content of the post.
Here we might let a large number of flowers bloom. When we have some
history behind us, I’ll be able to look at the various keywords used
over time and, if, as I suspect, there’s some clustering, put a menu
item on the sidebar that will let readers see the top ten keywords,
e.g. Keywords will enhance searching, it seems to me, allowing posters
to use synonyms for terms in their posts, as well as their own
(informed) notions of descriptive terms. Until we develop the history I
spoke of, the reader wouldn’t see the keywords we use, so no confusion
would result; the reader would be able to find posts, though, through a
search that happened to hit a keyword.

I reallize that my categories are abstract — too many years in the
academy, of course. But they have the advantage of being roughly
understood by most everyone at some level at least. (The
“understanding” category might be a trifle obscure, but I mean it to
include material on the broader aspects, social, political,
jurisprudential, professional, of dealing with legal information
through IT.) And they putatively at least are broad enough to cover
most all eventualities, saving us from having to come up with a
“correct” list of topical categories likely to incur posts.

Anyhow, this is my 2-cents worth.

So, thanks again Steve, for your suggestions and for prompting me to
put out mine.


Simon Fodden to the group
(July 22, 2005):

…From the resounding
silence after my email, I’m assuming that my idea about categories
wasn’t going to cause insurrection or projectile vomiting. That being
the case, I’ve adopted it. (I know it’s summer and many/most of you may
be doing something unworthwhile and so not reading your emails: if,
when you wake, you are seriously upset, let me know.)

Remember — there are two branches to each category: the default
“info-post” branch, which is simply the name of the category, and the
“essay” branch, which, you’ll see from the list of categories when you
post, has the category name followed by [essay].

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