Improving Access to Notes and Comments in Digital Collections

Original footnotes and hyperlinks added to version published in Vol. 38, Iss. 2 of the ALL-SIS Newsletter (Winter 2019).

Aaron Kirschenfeld, Digital Initiatives Law Librarian at the UNC School of Law’s Kathrine R. Everett Law Library

Law journal case notes, statutory notes, and comments (collectively called notes and comments) can be an excellent resource, especially when starting research in a new or unfamiliar area. Notes and comments are rich with footnotes that have been cited carefully. They are descriptive or explanatory in nature and mercifully short. In an era when many law journals are available in online digital collections, I have come to think of notes and comments as a vast, disorganized set of encyclopedia entries that have been hiding in plain sight. This article tells the story of how our library went about revealing some of them.

When we launched our BePress Digital Commons institutional repository in early 2016, we sought to add unique materials that our patrons, both at the law school and across the state, would value. Following the lead of other law libraries, the first collections we added were backfiles of law journals affiliated with the law school that we purchased from Hein. As the Digital Initiatives Law Librarian, I managed the process for getting the documents and descriptive metadata into the repository.

Although I am a member of our Collection and Technology Services department, I am also a reference librarian, with regular desk shifts, teaching duties, and the like. After our North Carolina Law Review collection was published to the web, I fielded a reference question for an article that appeared to be missing from the repository. I discovered, to my deep embarrassment, that while the article – a student note – was in fact on the repository, it was not easy to find.

I worked to figure out the scope of the problem and its cause. For some reason, individual notes or comments were not indexed at the item level in the data we received from Hein. Instead, they were chunked together in large files, sometimes up to 200 or more pages long, that were titled “Notes and Comments.”1 Researchers with a citation in hand could of course navigate to the proper “Notes and Comments” document and scroll to the appropriate page, but they were unable to find it otherwise.2

The individual notes or comments had titles that essentially amounted to rich subject headings. For instance, “Real Property — Easements — Prescriptive Acquisition in North Carolina,” a note written by John G. Aldridge and published in 1966 at 45 N.C. L. Rev. 284, does a great job of describing itself. The Supreme Court of North Carolina subsequently cited it in 1974, but there was no way to search for it by title, subject, or author either in our repository or on HeinOnline. As a result, the data was not indexed in search engines, either. The notes were available online, but they were largely inaccessible.

We decided that while this was not a particularly urgent problem, we wanted to do what we could to help people find these notes. For one, the notes seemed to be about topics still relevant not only to scholars with an interest in the law’s development, but also, in some cases, to practitioners looking for summaries of law that had not changed much over time. So we set about our work to create metadata and individual digital objects for each note or comment.

Over the course of six months, I supervised a reference librarian, Allison Symulevich, as she accurately hand-keyed much of the descriptive metadata for the notes and comments. We had some false starts prior to Allison joining the project, and the final product benefited greatly from her knowledge of legal sources and attention to detail. I also was able to employ a student worker, Christopher Bishop, to carefully split the large PDF files into individual files.3

By May 2018, we transformed 188 “Notes and Comments” files from the North Carolina Law Review into more than 1,700 individual items, each with its own descriptive metadata and PDF file.4 The notes and comments stretched from Volume 5 to Volume 62, or from 1926 to 1983, covering 57 years of student contributions.

We have been able to learn a bit about the notes and comments since we completed the project. As one would expect, many of the authors of student notes went on to play important roles in the profession. A sample of twenty-five newly described documents turned up notes by a future U.S. Court of Appeals judge, a future North Carolina Court of Appeals judge and state legislator, and several prominent attorneys.

Likewise, based on download counts, access to the notes themselves has increased. Since September 2017, the newly described notes have been downloaded more than 18,000 times. In the same period, the old chunked-together notes and comments documents were downloaded only 748 times. It turns out that good metadata really does increase accessibility, at least in this case.

Finally, I was able to work with Hein to transfer our work into the HeinOnline Law Journal Library.5 That work was just completed in late October, and all subscribers will now be able to access the newly indexed notes. The company has also identified a little more than 1,000 additional “Notes and Comments” sections in other law journals, and they are in the process of putting together a production schedule for work to describe and separate those items.

1 I initially suspected that this was caused by the notes never being indexed in Index to Legal Periodicals, but this is incorrect. Notes were indeed indexed. Representatives from Hein concluded that the omissions occurred due to “an indexing decision made many years ago [during the late 1990s] which may have resulted from a lack of table of contents provided in the print edition that was digitized.” For more information on the history of legal periodical indexing, see Richard Leiter, A History of Legal Periodical Indexing, 7 Legal Ref. Servs. Q. 35 (1987). For more on the ILP’s indexing policy, see, e.g., Miles O. Price & Harry Bitner, Effective Legal Research 279 (3d ed., 1969).

2 For an example of a “chunked together” document still on the repository, see, e.g., Notes and Comments, [].

3 For more technical detail, there is an archived video recording of a talk I gave on this project at CALICon18 in June 2018, Notes & Comments: Unique Resources for the Law School Institutional Repository, [].

4 See North Carolina Law Review, [].

5 This collection contains more than 2,600 law journals, many with article level metadata since inception. See Law Journal Library, []. For more information on the origins of HeinOnline, see Joe Gerken, The Invention of HeinOnline, 18 AALL Spectrum, Feb. 2014, at 17.