Global Legal Information Network: An Interview With Donna Scheeder
By Marydee Ojala
Donna Scheeder is director, law library services, Law Library of Congress.
I was intrigued by Donna Scheeder’s presentation on the Global Legal Information Network (GLIN), which she gave during the 2008 IFLA World Library and Information Congress (www.ifla.org) in Quebec City. Not only is it a fine example of an information resource for the global legal community, but it also presents valuable lessons for cross-cultural digitization projects beyond the topic area of law. I caught up with Scheeder, director of law library services for the Law Library of Congress, a month after IFLA, at the Internet Librarian conference in Monterey, Calif., and asked her to explain GLIN and answer some of my questions about the best practices revealed during the project’s planning and implementation.
On its website (www.glin.gov), GLIN is described as, “a public database of official texts of laws, regulations, judicial decisions, and other complementary legal sources contributed by governmental agencies and international organizations. These GLIN members contribute the full texts of their published documents to the database in their original languages. Each document is accompanied by a summary in English and, in many cases in additional languages, plus subject terms selected from the multilingual index to GLIN.”
That describes the fait accompli. According to Scheeder, the genesis of the project came from the realization at the Law Library of Congress that, although they wanted to collect the laws of the world, acquiring these primary and authoritative sources in paper was a slow process. She credits Law Librarian of Congress Rubens Medina with the idea of engaging the governments of other countries in the creation of a shared electronic resource. This international cooperative would encourage comparative legal research and benefit everyone. Much of the credit for the success of GLIN goes to Janice Hyde, the project officer.
Beyond that, globalization, interconnectivity, and the ability to engage in partnerships means information professionals now have the capacity to build global virtual libraries. In the legal field, people are dealing with issues that do not respect or recognize national boundaries. Take companies doing business in other countries. They need to understand the laws of those countries. If a business deals with foreign investment, legislators are very interested in knowing how other countries have handled specific legal issues. This provides some guidance for lawmaking in their countries.
Even something like the notion of “family” can vary widely from one place to another. In Africa, the definition of family may not align with the definition of family in Western Europe and North America. Suppose, posits Scheeder, someone from Swaziland, legally residing in the U.S., wishes to bring in a family member. What, in legal terms, constitutes “family member” in Swaziland and how does that translate to the legalities surrounding entry into another country? Is there a treaty in place to help decipher the relationship? What the law is in Swaziland could well be a valid concern of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and vice versa. Other topics with widely divergent legal views around the world include such things as divorce and stem cell research, to name only a few.
THE ESSENTIALS OF GLIN
GLIN is a global, intergovernmental, nonprofit, multilingual, and cooperative organization that numbers some 50 countries (as of September 2008) as members, with more interested in joining. The latest to join is the U.K., and other European Union countries have evinced interest. Countries in the cooperative have agreed to enter their laws and other legal material, including judicial decisions, legislative records, and other legal writings, into a common database, according to agreed upon standards. Scheeder emphasizes the difference between a database and a knowledge management tool. “Databases have information, but knowledge management tools add context that is contributed by knowledgeable contributors.” She views GLIN more as a knowledge management tool than simply a database.
Within GLIN, full-text documents are accompanied by summaries, usually in English, written by attorneys who are trained in the laws of the country. They describe the legal effect of the document. The database is searchable in 13 languages, including Arabic, Romanian, Chinese, and Japanese. There are a number of very sophisticated ways to limit searches, mainly through pull-down menus for Boolean logic, specific fields, categories (laws, judicial decisions, legislative records, or legal literature), language (of summary and of publication), jurisdictions, dates, and subject terms—yet the basic search page appears very simple. The advanced search option (in the Search For box) allows for wild card, Boolean, proximity, and nested searches.
Three options exist for sorting search results—by jurisdiction, category, date; relevancy; or publication date. The summary can be displayed or hidden. At the top of the search results, options for continuing the search are obvious. First, GLIN tells you explicitly what the search parameters were, how many documents met the search criteria, and how they’ve been sorted. Then, you can add other terms, use Boolean logic to further modify the search, change categories and summary language, alter the sort criteria, and simply start a new search.
Search results themselves show the title, jurisdiction, category, name of the publication, date published, language of the document, instrument class, subject terms, and summary. Titles are hyperlinked to take you directly to the full text of the document.
GLIN is searchable by people in any country: You don’t need to be a resident or citizen of a participating country to search GLIN. There is no registration process, no user IDs, and no passwords. However, some countries restrict access to the full-text documents. GLIN provides a full list of the countries and jurisdictions that are participating and the extent of their participation.
To have a true cooperative, says Scheeder, there must be a governance structure. This was one of the important things that was learned in putting together GLIN, although this is true for global digital projects in general, not just GLIN. By governance, she means “a decision-making structure that emphasizes collaboration and cooperation.” She stresses that the participating countries retain ownership of the assets they contribute. They have a say in how these assets are presented and explained. “Having a governance document, whether it is as formal as a charter or it is an agreement or memorandum of understanding of some kind, sets the ground rules for participation and gives representatives of different cultures the assurances that they need.”
Each country controls what content goes into GLIN from their country and how that content is described. Additionally, members collaborate on creating the subject thesaurus. There is a thesaurus committee that adds new terms as issues come up. This means lots of conference calls and e-discussions, says Scheeder with a laugh. It’s the subject thesaurus that makes the difference between just entering documents into a database and creating a truly international knowledgebase. It leads to a greater understanding between cultures.
Inevitably, because different legal systems—common law, civil law, religious law, and customary law—obtain in different parts of the world, it’s important to have a well-understood taxonomy so that people don’t reinvent the wheel. Scheeder sees an even greater benefit to the taxonomy discussions than simply facilitating research into comparative law. “It’s the people network that’s important, not just digitizing information.” Working through the terms in the thesaurus and exploring the ramifications of the taxonomy leads to greater trust among the participants. This has real value beyond the database itself.
“A Romanian researcher looking at, say, Korean law may not completely understand the legal intent. GLIN makes it possible for the Romanian to directly contact a Korean expert for clarification. Working on this project builds a people network that is so important.”
The subject thesaurus is completely searchable. It shows the authorized terms—“Dams for the generation of electricity use Hydroelectric power” and “Death penalty use Capital punishment,” for example. Another aspect of the subject index is the scope note that shows broader, narrower, and related terms.
The work put into the subject thesaurus, to Scheeder, reflects the importance of respecting the knowledge and content of diverse countries. “It’s a true collaboration,” she says.
The second important lesson learned during the GLIN project was the importance of having standards. Scheeder talks about three areas that the standards fall into: information quality standards, interoperability, and the need for conceptual linking through the thesaurus. Information quality involves the data being authoritative and accurate. Having quality standards is particularly important in the legal world since it can make the difference between winning and losing a case.
Technical standards for the digital images must serve the interoperative needs of the GLIN collaborators. Considerations include backup resources, network redundancy, firewall and other security requirements, IP expansion, mean time to restore, and application availability. Standards for thesaurus-building are particularly necessary for multicultural projects such as GLIN. The subject terms are selected from a multilingual index. Only through intense cooperation and mutual trust are thesaurus terms created and validated so that they enhance searchability.
Participants in global digitization projects join for many reasons. In the case of GLIN, some of the developing countries participate to help manage their own information. Self interest, then, plays a role in why countries and jurisdictions choose to be part of GLIN. However, the role of an international cooperative is to pull disparate interests together, and GLIN has been quite successful at this.
SUCCESSFUL GLOBAL DIGITIZATION PROJECTS
The best practices identified during GLIN’s 15 years can be applied to many global digital projects. In addition to governance and standards, a third critical success factor is patience. Since the requirements for getting approvals can vary widely among cultures, being willing to wait is necessary.
Ultimately, believes Scheeder, it’s not the technology that determines the success of a global digitization project. It’s mutual respect, both for the knowledge of the collaborators and for the content they bring to the project. GLIN not only brings together legal texts from around the world, but it also adds knowledge beyond the digitization process. Collaboration becomes more important to the learning process than the mechanics of digitization.