A nineteenth-century linking application

by Bob DuCharme

Frank Shepard was a salesman for a Chicago legal publisher. Shortly
after the American Civil War, he noticed that when one court case overruled,
criticized, or otherwise cited another, lawyers often jotted a note about it
in the margin of the reporter volume with the cited case's text. For
example, upon learning that the judge in the case known as "La Bourgogne" (210
U.S. 95) made a negative references to the "Moore v. American
Transportation Company" (65 U.S. 1) case, a lawyer might turn to page 1 in volume 65
of the U.S. Supreme Court case reporter and write "210 U.S. 95, negative" in
the margin next to the Moore case. This way, if if the Moore case ever came up
in court, the lawyer would have a better idea of its exact value.

Shepard had an idea: if he printed gummed labels for each case listing
the cases that cited it, he could save the lawyers the trouble of writing in
these references by hand. He built a business out of selling these inter-case
links to the legal profession and named the company after himself: href="http://www.lexisnexis.com/shepards/">Shepard's. (Full disclosure:
since Reed Elsevier acquired Shepard's in the mid-1990s, Shepard's Citations
has been a product of my employer, LexisNexis. Other than some occasional XSLT
advice to the folks in Colorado Springs, where Shepard's has been based since
1947, I don't do any work on that particular product.) In one sense, the
stickers they produced in 1873 were already more sophisticated than web links,
because if more than one case had cited the same case, the sticker for that
case added a one-to-many link to it.

To help the lawyers quickly learn why one case had been cited by
another, Shepard's started including href='http://www.lib.odu.edu/research/sguides/soccase.shtml#shep'>one-letter
codes to show that the citing case had overruled, criticized, modified, or
applied some other treatment to the cited case. Now their links had link types:
indications about the nature of the links to give a clue about why
they might be worth traversing.

The stickers, or "Adhesive Annotations," became very popular. While
sitting on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, future United States
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote "I regard Shepard's
Massachusetts Annotations as the most thorough labor-saving device that has
even been brought to my attention. No one owning a set of reports can afford
to be without one."

Before the nineteenth century came to a close, the company began
producing alternatives to the sticker collections: bound books that listed,
for each case, the cases that cited it and codes describing the citing case's
treatment. Today, we call this separation of the links from the linked
resources "out-of-line links."

The books became so popular that their inventor's last name became a
verb. Any lawyer or law student knows that to href='http://www.lectlaw.com/files/lwr17.htm'>Shepardize a case is to find
out all relevant cases that cite it. Of course, automating the storage and lookup
of these links is much easier with software, and it's all online now. When you
view a case using LexisNexis, clicking the "Shepardize" link displays a list
of citing cases with links to the full text of those cases. This saves a lot
of running around a law library, which was how the links were followed for the
first century of their existence. (LexisNexis's chief competitor, WestLaw, has
a competing on-line product called KeyCite.)

The success of Frank Shepard's invention tells us several things about linking:

  • Link typing can add real value to a linking application.
    If a lawyer who's going to bring up a case in court Shepardizes it and sees
    only codes for positive treatment, there's little need to look up the citing
    cases. If other cases criticized the case to be cited, however, it's his job
    to find out why. (Too bad it's href='http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/wlg/3094'>so difficult to find other
    examples of link typing adding obvious value!)

  • Out-of-line links can sometimes be more useful than in-line links.
    The web and other hypertext systems leading up to it have conditioned many
    to think of a link as something that connects the resource they're looking at to a
    single other resource somewhere else, but links can be more than that. Shepard's customers
    found that having all the citation links in a single set of books instead of
    as a set of stickers to be spread around hundreds of volumes can make the
    research go much more quickly, especially with the treatment codes added to
    the link identifiers to give clues about whether the links are worth traversing.

  • It's not about the technology, but about the information. Just as
    a well-written song can work well when performed by different bands, a good
    linking application can still have value when implemented using different

What other linking applications have "ported" well across technologies over time?