GURU INTERVIEW: GENIE TYBURSKI
Marylaine Block interviews the woman who's web manager for the respected legal research site The Virtual Chase, a service of the law firm of Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, LLP, http://www.virtualchase.com/index.shtml
MB: Did you set out to be a law librarian, or was that a happy accident you turned out to have an affinity for?
GT: During my first day at Drexel, I remember filling out a questionnaire that asked, amongst other things, what kind of librarian I wanted to be. Imagine my dismay when "a good one" wasn't one of the choices. I had no idea there were different types of librarians. Six weeks later, I landed a part-time cataloging job at Community Legal Services (CLS), an organization that provides legal services to the poor. About six months after I started, the director of the library resigned and recommended that CLS hire me to take her place. This rendered me speechless. I barely knew the basics of librarianship. I knew absolutely nothing about law. She spent her last two weeks on the job giving me a crash course in civics, basic legal resources and Lexis.
I was in the right place, at the right time, with a saint for a teacher. I learned to love the subject matter years after getting over my introduction to USCCAN (United States Code and Congressional Administrative News).
MB: Tell me about your early days on the net, and how you came to build The Virtual Chase. What inspired you to add the various components of it?
GT: I first traipsed around the Net during 1992 or 1993, when I discovered it by accident after connecting to the library catalog at the University of Utah. We have a Salt Lake City office, and I was looking for a book for one of our lawyers. What I found was so much more interesting!
By early 1996, there was enough legal and government information available that I thought it was important to try to keep on top of it. Also, the potential of the hypertext markup language intrigued me. And I thought, "This is like WordStar. I can learn this."
I hardly had a five-year plan. Wanting to write, as well as to share information about the legal and government documents available and to learn HTML, I launched what was then Genie Tyburski's Home Page. Four months later - during October 1996, I renamed the site, calling it The Virtual Chase.
At that time, it offered rudimentary versions of the current Legal Research and People Finder guides, along with a couple of short articles reconstructed from a column I used to write for the GPLLA (Greater Philadelphia Law Library Association) Newsletter.
For the most part, I initially added content that I had used during in-house research training sessions. Both the securities resources page in the Legal Research Guide and the Company Information Guide started as in-house presentations. Later, as I began to conduct hands-on seminars for local library and Internet groups, I added resources that helped me teach the classes. Both Government Resources on the Internet (now archived) and Legal and Factual Research on the Internet were visual aids for the classes.
Today, a lot more planning goes into what to add to the site. At well over 600 pages, it's big. Sometimes I feel like I'm running in place just to keep all the links fresh. That's important, and I yet I know as I respond to your question, that some of the links are dead.
And more than just the links change. The substance of what I write may change. Therefore, when inspiration strikes, I have to consider, how often is change going to affect the content? Can I keep up with it? And equally important, is the new content in line with the purpose of the site? I know from the email questions I receive that many pro se litigants, for example, use the site. If the content helps them, that's a nice side benefit. But we exist to help legal professionals, and I don't want to lose site of that goal.
MB: Are your firm's lawyers using your web site?
GT: I'm confident that our lawyers use The Virtual Chase. In addition to the referrer logs, which reveal the domains that refer visitors, they often talk to me about it. One day, I put information about a competitor's Web site in the Legal Research Guide. It's a good site, and I spoke highly of it. Later, when I ran into one of the partners in the hallway, he said something like, did you have to include information about that site? I replied that I did. The site qualified on all counts for inclusion in the guide. He nodded, and then grumbled good-naturedly, "Yeah, but did you have to call attention to it by giving it a 'new' icon?"
They're paying attention, and using the site. They mention it to clients and at CLE seminars. They also let me know when a link goes bad!
One of the funniest stories I have to relate about our own use of the site is, a partner once called me seeking copyright permission to provide handouts at an upcoming CLE seminar! Of course, I'm happy she called because I learned about the seminar and that she was going to talk about The Virtual Chase. But it is her - the firm's - intellectual property.
MB: Any thoughts on the way your web site's popularity has changed your life?
GT: Let me count the ways. I never lack for work - payment perhaps, but not work. There's always an article or a presentation in the works. And I have met so many interesting people, some of whom have become close friends.
It has expanded my horizons. When you work for a large law firm in a fairly tight-knit legal community, it affects your point of view. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The Virtual Chase has put me in touch with lawyers and librarians all over the world. I learn about differences - different procedures, laws, cultures, experiences and opinions. I enjoy this interaction.
And of course, a 24/7 job means my family gets the short end of the stick on occasion. My husband is wonderful and completely supportive. My kids are experts in dishing out guilt trips. They keep me in line.
MB: What is the thinking that goes into a major redesign and reorganization of a 600+ page web site?
GT: Let me say up front that I'm no expert in Web design. Content I understand, and like any librarian, I'll muddle through something that's hard to use if it has the content I'm after. But not everyone is a librarian. Design is as important as the content, because the content is meaningless if it can't be found.
The Virtual Chase was long overdue for an overhaul when I decided to undertake this task several months ago. I had put it off for a long time, because I was looking for an assistant. That process took a little longer than I anticipated, but I'm happy to announce that a recent Drexel graduate - Greg Kaplan - joined our ranks. He will assist, at least part-time, with the development of the site.
While I was interviewing folks, I began to read about Web design. I subscribed to Jakob Nielsen's usability newsletter [http://useit.com/], and purchased several books, including Don't Make Me Think (New Riders Publishing, 2000), Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (O'Reilly, 2002) and Web Word Wizardry (Ten Speed Press, 2001).
With the help of our Web host, I also created a secure site for development purposes. I am able to put many of my less-than-brilliant ideas to rest there.
Next, I talked to people. I talked to lawyers to try to understand how they looked for information at the site, and what frustrations they experienced. I tried talking to librarians, but they're too nice. They would only give me positive feedback and encouragement.
I also talked to a couple of folks with technical expertise. Greg, who studied interface design and usability at Drexel, made several suggestions. One may have saved my social life. He said: You really have to learn how to use cascading stylesheets (CSS). This is ancient history in Web design, but I hadn't taken the time to explore it.
Pete Weiss, a systems administrator at Penn State, who helps me manage the listserv for TVC Alert, suggested several ideas for improving the online version of TVC Alert.
All that was left was to put these ideas to work. After learning CSS, which took only a few hours, I re-created the site map. It may still need work, but it helped me organize the site from the viewpoint of the visitor. Next, I made several other minor design changes, and created a new navigational menu.
Finally - and I'm still doing this - I have to strip all the formatting from all 600 plus pages, so that the stylesheets can do their job. That takes the most time. Fortunately, when I redesigned the site a few years ago, I had - again on the advice of a technically savvy friend - incorporated server-side includes. This allowed me to make design changes to the header, which contains our logos, the menu and the footer, which contains copyright information, without actually having to edit each page individually. When I do something right, it's usually by accident, or on the advice of a friend.
MB: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I always learn interesting things from you.
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Most people ask and answer quantity questions now, in part because we have the tools to answer them and the tools' capabilities often drive research.
I'm glad that there are people asking those quantity questions [about wildlife], because my own questions sometimes grow out of their answers. But my questions are those of process: What does he like to eat? Who is he anyway? Does she behave differently from those over there, the ones who look like her? What limits the population? What does he do when he gets in a pickle?...Where are they when they aren't here?
Sue Hubbell. Broadsides from the Other Orders. Random HOuse, 1993.
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