FLAG - Foreign Law Guide Project
'A collaborative Internet gateway to the holdings of foreign, international and comparative law in UK universities and national libraries'.
Reviewed by: Michael Dunne
University of Lancater
Finding out which libraries in the UK have holdings of foreign law materials has always been a difficult task, both for librarians and academic researchers. Granted, we now have access to most library catalogues through theNISS gateway, and we have theCOPACunion catalogue of the major research libraries, but the advent of a national union catalogue is stillsome way off. Catalogue entries can also be too brief for the user to get a good idea if the source material is worth making a special journey to see, and of course their major limitation is that for primary source materials the user already needs to know what it is that they are looking for.
Now we have free access to a database which attempts to solve these problems. Created as a joint venture between the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, the Bodleian Law Library, the British Library, the Squire Law Library and the School of Oriental and African Studies, the FLAG database will be a godsend to anyone who deals with foreign law materials.
Instead of compiling a database from records obtained from library catalogues or information gleaned from university web sites the FLAG team decided to carry out a survey of over one hundred academic law libraries throughout the United Kingdom (see the surveymethodology). Subsequent visits were made to libraries that were deemed to meet certain criteria in the level of their foreign law holdings. It is the information gathered from these visits that forms the data on FLAG.
The database is referred to as a prototype, and has some unusual features: on initially clicking on the link to the database from theFLAG home pageI was informed that I would need to download Microsoft's Virtual Machine software. Twenty-five minutes later the download was complete and installed on my laptop (56K modem). It is possible to use the database without installing Virtual Machine, but I think it would be useful to put some information on the page warning the visitor that this may happen and about the desirability of going ahead with the installation.
2. Searching FLAG
There are three search screens available: Collection Search, Advanced Search and Library Search.
2.1 Collection Search
This is the default search screen and probably the one that most users would stick with. There are six text boxes that can be used to perform searches on the database; three of them have a Word Wheel attached (this is in effect what Virtual Machine has installed), which is basically an alphabetical list of words in the database. The search fields are:
Country (with Word Wheel);
Province or State (with Word Wheel);
International Organisation (with Word Wheel);
General type of legal material (drop-down list);
Free text search;
Library Region (drop-down list).
Searches can be carried out using one or more of these fields, and none of them are mandatory. Full Boolean searching, with AND, OR and NOT operators, can be used on all fields to broaden or limit searches - the default is AND. The standard truncation device * can also be used on the free text search. Help is available at the bottom of each screen.
The Word Wheel brings up a new window which allows the user to search for words in a Terms List or a Words List. The Terms List is the default and allows for phrase searching. Searching for United Nations shows the usefulness of the Word Wheel by displaying a list of all the related sub-organisations within the UN and the numbers of references attached, which makes choosing the right entry much easier. The Words List allows for single word searching, and once again includes the number of references found. Once I had got used to the method of pasting entries from the Word Wheel into the search form I found the Word Wheel increased my confidence that I was using the database to its full capability and getting all the references available. For country searching it was very useful, especially as I had forgotten how to spell Kyrgyzstan.
A simple search on Country: Canada AND General type of legal material: Court Reports AND Library Region: North West brought up eight references from four libraries in the region. The results are presented in a tabular format, and entries for a particular type of material have been standardised, which is something that a union catalogue can rarely do and which makes identifying relevant materials much easier.
Clicking on an individual record brings up a fuller display, divided into fields, and I was somewhat surprised at first to see that the full record does not give the traditional bibliographic information that one is used to seeing on, for instance, a library catalogue record. Instead of giving the title of the item found the FLAG record describes the holdings of a particular library without identifying the published title/s. The description field includes: the year range, the language, the shelfmark, and very importantly whether the material is still being added to. So, for example, the results of the above search for my library are:
Description: 3 titles containing court reports for Canada from 1912 onwards. 1 title is an official publication. The text of all the titles is in English, and 1 is in French additionally. New material is still added to 1 title only.
This level of information would have been very difficult to find from a library catalogue if the user did not know which publications actually contain Canadian Law Reports and it is exactly the level of information required to tell at a glance whether our library is worth visiting. To help with this a link is also provided to the web site of the library and an e-mail address is provided for a library contact.
2.2 Advanced Search
This gives more choice to the user in formulating search strategies, including the ability to search individual libraries, search for specific kinds of legal material e.g. digests, and to run a search by subject.
2.3 Library Search
This allows the user to search for details of the libraries represented in the database, either by keyword or from a list.
I found it very easy to use FLAG - it is well designed and the search-form interface allows for simple and quite advanced searches to be created without knowing any complex commands. The only concern now is whether the database will remain freely available, and whether resources can be found to keep it up to date. Perhaps a way could be found for contributing libraries to forward details of changes to holdings to the database compilers for incorporation into FLAG.
Technical note: I did have problems with running the database on the Netscape 4.6/6 and Opera 6 browsers - the java plugin did not work properly. On an accessibility note I was also unable to increase the font-size on the results pages, something which might be a problem for some users.
This is an IT Review published on 16 August 2002.
Citation: Dunne M, 'FLAG - Foreign Law Guide Project', IT Review, The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT)2002 (2)<http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/02-2/dunne.html>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/2002_2/dunne/>.