@Zotero 4 Law and OpenCongress.org

I am very happy to announce the first operational end-to-end research and citation pipeline for MLZ and its family of legal styles. The target site is OpenCongress.org, the excellent legislative tracking site sponsored by the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. A screencast covering installation, content download and document drafting (in the breathtakingly short interval of 12 minutes) is available. I’m pretty happy with the kit at the moment, but I’m biased. Check it out and see what you think. Here are the links referenced in the screencast:

As this may attract fresh attention from site maintainers and new users, I’ll seize this opportunity to post a few comments:

  • MLZ is a private fork of the official Zotero client. Like Zotero proper, it is free software, with license terms that assure it will remain so. The significance of “private” in this case is that the MLZ client is not supported by the core Zotero developers, so caveats about backing up data and the possibility of some extra effort for data migration down the road should be taken seriously. If things proceed as expected, much of the extended functionality in MLZ will eventually make its way (likely in an improved form) into official Zotero; but that process will take some time.
  • One point missing from the screencast is that Zotero (and by extension MLZ) is a very flexible research support tool, quite apart from the little thrill we all experience when resources cite themselves. Material can be marshaled by shuffling items into collections, by tagging, and by local full-text search. Persistent notes and other supplementary material can be attached to items, and content can be shared within a seminar or research group. The system is extensible (as shown by the Abbreviations Plugin) and there have been efforts to tie visualization tools into the Zotero architecture. With legal referencing support now emerging, Zotero may be worth a look as a platform to leverage in the development of legal support tools.
  • The topics of referencing technology, MLZ and the MLZ family of styles will be the subject of a short (let me say “compact”) rant + how-to volume that I expect to complete by the end of August this year. Proofsheets that illustrate the Zotero/MLZ input that will be expected by the styles when complete can be viewed online. Watch for it in a bookstore near you!
  • The screencast shows only the capture of US Code provisions affected by an amending Act. With a bit more effort, we should be able to extend the software to cover the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and statutes referred to only by their popular names. It might be awhile before that happens, but it’s on the do-list. Contributions to that effort (of any sort) would of course be most welcome.
  • The site “translator” demonstrated in the video works great, but in the process of putting this together yesterday I was once again reminded of an old wheeze. The MLZ styles rely on seven-odd pieces of metadata describing each statutory provision. None of those items (including the title of the legislation!) is available from the OpenCongress.org pages in a structured form. As a result, the necessary details need to be parsed out of the text of the page, in what amounts to sophisticated guesswork. What that means in practical terms is that if the page design changes, the translator (the thingie that does the automated download demonstrated in the screencast) will almost certainly break. I aim to keep the translator up to date, but it would be great if structured metadata could be provided in the pages. It makes building third-party extensions like this sooo much easier.
  • Despite that minor bit of chiding, I will note that this is the first time I have had the pleasure of working Zotero against legal content where the attitude and response of maintainers all around was positively welcoming. Things go so much more smoothly when one is not treated as an officious and unwelcome interloper; it makes for much more pleasurable and productive interloping. Words of gratitude to the folks behind both OpenCongress and Cornell LII.

If you have read this far, have been tempted to try out the software, and have views about it (positive, I hope, but beggars can’t be chosers), feel free to give vent to them with a good old-fashioned Tweet.

Frank Bennett

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One Response to @Zotero 4 Law and OpenCongress.org

  1. Fantastic work, Frank! One more chip in the wall.

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