Peeping THOMAS: A Little Look at a Big System

AALL Meeting Reflections

There was a packed house for Peeping THOMAS.  This was not surprising for a presentation by the people who help make THOMAS what it is.  Presenters Bob Gee, Tammie Nelson, Christine Sellers, and Andrew Weber took what could have been dry statistics and charts, and told us the story of The Life of THOMAS: past, present, and future.

We began with a brief background on the history of THOMAS: launched in 1995, built in a mere six weeks.  Not bad for a site that provided the public unprecedented access to all manner of legislative materials.

The story continued with discussion of the former and current technical challenges of THOMAS.  Data coming from several different sources, balancing short-term and long-term goals, and the final decision to have a user-centered definition of priorities.

But the question is: Whose priorities?  Students in middle school and high school?  Government officials?  Law librarians?  The public?

The OpinionLab feature helps provide the answers, by allowing THOMAS users to submit  anonymous feedback.  Of course, this feature is still available: just look for the “Feedback” button in the lower-right corner of your screen.

And as it turns out, many people are interested in weighing in on the good and bad of THOMAS.  Comments can range from “Very good!” to “This sucks!”… in one day.

One of the first and most successful “fixes” as a result of the OpinionLab was changing the timeout feature on THOMAS from five minutes to thirty minutes.  This increase dramatically reduced complaints about premature timeouts.  This was only one of several examples showing how user comments and questions led directly to concrete changes in THOMAS.

Despite this “moral of the story,” the presentation never felt preachy or commercial.  The presenters were just genuinely excited about the topic.

One interesting portion of the presentation was a “before and after” look at searches and the results.  That is, we saw the way a search results page used to look, and how it looks now.  The differences are simple yet dramatic: a clearer way of showing the user where they are and what is being displayed.

Overall, the presenters handled their time well.  Their presentation was well-organized and informative.  It was interesting to see how some of the feedback numbers improved over time, and the tone remained explanatory as opposed to a commercial for THOMAS.

Although I appreciated the fact that the presenters opened the floor for questions during the last 20 minutes of their hour, this tactic appeared to be less useful than they might have hoped.  When people came to the microphone to speak, it appeared that the questions all touched on issues with which the presenters were quite familiar.  Indeed, the presenters were generally nodding with recognition before the questioner’s first sentence was completed.  But really, this is a good thing—it shows that the THOMAS folks already have a good idea of what the law librarian portion of their audience needs and wants.

If you are interested in more information on Peeping THOMAS, presenter Andrew Weber posted his own post-meeting thoughts over at In Custodia Legis, including a link to the presentation slides.

Stephanie Ziegler is a reference librarian at the Moritz Law Library, Ohio State University

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