The new Glossators

Today I stumbled across Paul Maharg’s account of last April’s KM Legal conference (Day 1 | Day 2). I was glad I did: having helped the conference organiser to design the programme, I was very cross that I couldn’t get to it because of clashing commitments. In particular, I had wanted to see Paul again (one of my last commitments as an academic was to share a platform with him), as well as hearing Dave Snowden. Paul’s account of the conference was very good — not just a summary of the presentations, but a useful critique as well.

Paul’s own presentation, “The Future of KM” is available on Slideshare (as adapted for a subsequent occasion).

Like all good visions of the future, Paul’s is rooted in history. In particular, he links the current practice of KM in law firms (and more generally) with the mediæval glossators whose views on the basic legal texts effectively developed the law itself.

Browsing through the slides, I was reminded of two related tools that were first developed over ten years ago: CritLink and Harvard Law School’s Annotation Engine. These were designed to overlay external web pages published by others with locally-created annotations. They never really took off. I remember trying to get both of them to work, but my limited Perl skills weren’t up to it (and the fact that I was using a Windows server probably didn’t help). However, this is still a key area where Web 2.0 doesn’t quite hit the mark.

As slide 14 of Paul’s presentation says, blogs can be seen as glossed commentary, and wikis as glossae, but the problem with both of them is that they are usually remote from the material that they refer to. If one could read legislation or cases with a gloss attached, surely their usefulness would be improved? Perhaps this is something that someone could take on now that the UK’s government information is being opened up

In the meantime, I suspect that we will stick to guidance notes and know-how documents that refer selectively to legislation and cases, without being able to put them in a wider context. Paul suggests that legal knowledge managers might be Glossators, but I suspect that in fact we are Commentators.

The Commentators went beyond the glossators, who had had treated each text separately. The commentators instead wrote prose commentaries on the texts (rather like lectures,) working through, book by book, through the Digest.

I think there is merit in both approaches, but technology currently favours commentating.