Reading Guide: Hypertext and Retrieval
2. Hypertext - Features, history and design

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[This Part is completed for 2000]

2.1. What is hypertext?

Hypertext is what you are using to find and navigate around this page and the information on it. Hypertext has been defined by various authors as `an approach to information management in which data is stored in a network of nodes connected by links' (Smith & Weiss) and as `screens of information not connected sequentially but connected by using associative links' (Stephen & Schreiber). At its simplest it is a technique of computerised cross-referencing, or what one writer called a 'generalised footnote'. Other useful phrases used to describe hypertext are `non-linear text presentation' and `text navigation systems'.

The essence of hypertext is that of a series of nodes of information, connected by links to form a network of information, as illustrated below. The result is that hypertext is non-sequential or non-linear: 'there is no single order that determines the sequence in which the text is to be read' (Jakob Nielsen Hypertext and Hypermedia Academic Press, San Diego, 1990 p3).

In the example below, it is possible for a user to navigate the nodes in the order A, D, C, E as well as in numerous other orders. Node F is equivalent to a table of contents.

A link is from an item of text within a node (an anchor) to another node (ie to the 'top' of that node), or to a target within the same node or within another node.

A small hypertext structure with 6 nodes and 13 links (following Nielsen 1990)

For more technical information, see the following definitions on Whatis?com, and browse some of the associated definitions connected to them (this is a very useful site for checking technical terms). Read as much as you need:

2.1.1. Distinguishing features of hypertext

What are the distinguishing features of hypertext? Here are some suggestions, influenced by Nielsen (1990), with some illustrations from AustLII and from the hypertext aspects of this Guide. It's incomplete, but a start: Many of the items mentioned above are elements of the essentials of good hypertext design, discussed below.

There is now more general commercial interest in hypermedia, not hypertext per se, where hyper-structures are used to combine text with other media such as sound and image (moving and still). For the moment, the emphasis of legal applications is on hypertext, except in the litigation support context, where most aspects of hypermedia are very relevant.

2.2. History of hypertext

Hypertext has been in commercial use for a surprisingly short time (little more than a decade), but has a much longer history as an idea. You can just read this overview, or dip into some of the very interesting readings that follow.

Vannevar Bush's 'memex'

Everyone traces the idea of hypertext back to Vannevar Bush's 1945 idea of the `memex`, which he said should operate by association, as the human mind does. He proposed a mechanical (non-digital) device - data on microfilm. See Vannevar Bush 'As We May Think' (Atlantic Monthly, 1945) - a fascinating article, worth a read.

Ted Nelson - 'hypertext' and Xanadu

The term `hypertext' was coined by Ted Nelson in the 1960s as a tern for 'non-sequential writing': see Elain Chain in 'Ted Nelson and Project Xanadu'.

In Ted Nelson ' A New Home for the Mind?' (Datamation Magazine, 1982), he described his `Xanadu' project. Parts of Xanadu were to include a hypertext corpus of the whole of English literature, which it involved users creating their own links or `trails' between documents, and the data was to be distributed across vast networks.

See Xanadu Australia for lots more, including the Xanadu archives, and material about the concept of 'transclusion'. Ted Nelson's home page contains lots more, including a very detailed 1999 article surveying the history and purpose of Xanadu, his summary of which starts as follows:

Project Xanadu, the original hypertext project, is often misunderstood as an attempt to create the World Wide Web. It has always been much more ambitious, proposing an entire form of literature where links do not break as versions change; where documents may be closely compared side by side and closely annotated; where it is possible to see the origins of every quotation; and in which there is a valid copyright system-- a literary, legal and business arrangement-- for frictionless, non-negotiated quotation at any time and in any amount. The Web trivialized this original Xanadu model, vastly but incorrectly simplifying these problems to a world of fragile ever-breaking one-way links, with no recognition of change or copyright, and no support for multiple versions or principled re-use. Fonts and glitz, rather than content connective structure, prevail.
Much of Nelson's idea has this is now become reality - the World Wide Web (though Nelson is reported to have responded to the web as 'nice try').

Apple's Hypercard and the Hypertext '87 Conference (1987)

Englebart demonstrated a hypertext system in 1968, but there was little commercial interest for another decade, although there were various experimental systems (including Nelson's). High interest in hypertext only dates from Apple's 1987 release of Hypercard, and the Hypertext '87 Conference.

Jakob Nielsen reports on one of the early seminal conferences in Hypertext'2 Trip Report (York, U.K., 1989), including on the current state of Nelson's Xanadu.

Tim Berners-Lee and the World-Wide-Web

Meanwhile, the most significant practical development of hypertext was taking place at CERN, a particle physics laboratory in Switzerland, where Tim Berners-Lee (now Director of the World-Wide-Web Consortium - W3C) developed the basic ideas of the web from 1989.

See A Little History of the World Wide Web (1989-1995) at the W3C site, plus as much more About The World Wide Web as you can cope with.

Other references

2.3. Principles of hypertext design, and usability studies

Before considering how hypertext has been used with legal information, it is necessary to consider general aspects of what constitutes hypertext and good hypertext design.

Jakob Nielsen is a pioneer of hypertext design, and Jakob Nielsen's Website is one of the best starting points on 'suable information technology'. Here are some key pieces by Nielsen on the design and usability of hypertext, and some general references:

Since you will soon be designing your own legal web site, reading some of these columns is a good idea.

For a discussion of how ideas similar to those of Nielsen are implemnented in a large-scale legal system, see Tour] Philip Chung, Daniel Austin, and Andrew Mowbray In defence of plain HTML for law: AustLII's approach to standards [1999] CompLRes 11 (Paper presented at AustLII's "Law Via The Internet '99" conference). Note in particular the Ten usability heuristics. (Also published as Chung P et al, 'A Defence of Plain HTML for Law:AustLII's Approach to Standards', 2000 (1).The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT))

For a contrast to Neilsen's approach, see:

For other references on hypertext design, see: Where is the world-wide-web going? For some interesting (non-compulsory) discussion, see:

2.4. New developments in hypertext - XML etc

2.4.1. XML (Extensible Markup Language) - structured data on the web

The Extensible Markup Language (XML) is 'the universal format for structured documents and data on the Web' In the next section, XML applications to law are covered.

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