Reference from Coast to Coast - Lessons in Librarianship

Welcome to Reference From Coast to Coast: Sources and Strategies, a monthly column written by Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen.

Jan Bissett is a Reference Librarian in the Bloomfield Hills, Michigan office of Dickinson Wright PLLC. She is a past president of the Michigan Association of Law Libraries and has published articles on administrative and research related topics in the Michigan Association of Law Libraries Newsletter and Michigan Defense Quarterly. She and Margi Heinen team teach Legal Information Sources and Services for Wayne State University's Library and Information Science Program in Detroit, Michigan.   

Margi Heinen is the Librarian at Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer & Weiss in Detroit, Michigan. She teaches Legal Resources at the University of Michigan's School of Information and is team teaching with her co-columnist, Jan Bissett, at Wayne State University's School of Library and Information Science. She regularly does Internet training of legal staff at her firm and recently collaborated with Kathleen Gamache on an I.P.E. presentation, Internet Strategies for the Paralegal in Michigan. She is active in the Law Librarians of Metro Detroit and is a member of the American Association of Law Libraries.

A new year is a time of reflection and we've recently been thinking of how we teach our own. By "our own" we mean future librarians and possibly law librarians. Teaching legal bibliography to potential future colleagues is a learning experience. Preparation reveals that which is important to you and interaction with your students often reveals how others view our part of the research world and information profession. This month, we thought we'd take time to reflect on how we've selected and prepared teaching materials, sources we used and lessons we learned.

Preparing course materials is an education in its self. A mini librarian-skills workshop: collection development (selection and acquisition); reference interview (determine questions to be asked and answered; information needed); management (human resources and time management) as well as technical and access services (catalog and classify materials so that they may be easily identified and located). Selecting class materials including the text, additional readings, assignments and discussion topics involves research. We looked to legal research materials used in law schools and other library/information programs. The American Association of Law Libraries Education for A Career in Law librarianship and Competencies of Law Librarianship provided some of our starting points. The Conference of Law Library Educators provides a school's list of related courses and syllabi where available. Legal Research and Writing materials from law schools may help you shape your syllabus but library/information students are not law students and their needs must be recognized and met.

With interest, we've followed the discussions concerning the choice of legal research textbook from the discussion lists to the AALL 2001 Annual Meeting program through Which Legal Research Text is Right for You? 10 Perspectives: Teaching Legal Research and Writing 23 (Fall 2001). And while we may agree with some of the observations, a legal bibliography/legal resources class text cannot be confined to legal research. A variety of materials have served as the text: Kunz, The Process of Legal Research (Aspen 2000); Sloan, Basic Legal Research ( Aspen 2000); Svengalis, Legal Information Buyer's Guide and Reference Manual (Rhode Island Press) as well as Fine, American Legal Systems: A Resource and Reference Guide (Anderson Publishing Company). Additional readings from professional associations, research related materials from LLRX.com, The Virtual Chase and other information related publications provided some lively discussions.

Lessons Learned

We've heard it said, most often as students, that each class has its own personality. So true. And we've learned from our students as they've learned from us. Some of those lessons were surprising, others thought provoking, but all were good experiences:

  • Law can be intimidating: The "law" in law librarianship or "legal" in legal information professional can be intimidating. Over the past three years almost all of our students have questioned the educational background needed. A "can I do this if I have no legal background?" makes us wonder where we've gone wrong. A reflection of the school's priorities and emphasis? Or a lack of marketing our little part of the research world? As an introduction to the profession, we've recommended AALL's career materials and reading articles from Information Today publications and other materials such as Zimmerman's Research Guide "Law Librarianship" or "Law Librarians" as well as signing on to law library related discussion lists. Class discussions about the need for dual degrees often proved as lively as those on law-lib.
  • One-stop Shopping (or there is often no convenience market in legal research): One of the most difficult things for our students to master was the process of legal research – the interdependence and relationship of primary legal sources, secondary sources and publication/serial nature of these materials regardless of format. Many attorneys and law students want to believe there is one place to check for the information they want. Those new to research chorus, "why does it have to be so complicated?". In practice, attorneys are happy to receive a list of relevant URLs, a list of the web sites or "favorites" thinking these materials will make their research easy. Librarians and library students know or should know better. Information retrieval is often not straightforward nor easy. Legal material is produced chronologically by a variety of governmental entities who have no reason to coordinate their activities for the convenience of researchers. Librarians must thoroughly understand this publication scheme (regardless of format) and develop research processes that compensate for this difficulty. We encourage library students to develop detective-like skills to solve research problems. Thus, while we may provide lists of URLs to attorneys, library students should spend much more time learning the search techniques of search engines and proprietary databases. One of the sources I always illustrate to new attorneys and librarians is the Martindale-Hubbell Law Digest. (The Web version requires that you register, but is free). These law digests contain summary paragraphs on many areas of law in each of the 50 states and numerous other countries. The summaries include references to statutes and cases relevant to researching that topic further. These are great time-savers and can start a researcher off in the correct direction immediately.
  • Ships sunk by loose lips: One of the attractions of the Web is the ease with which we can query our fellows. Occasionally an attorney may request a specific case mentioned on a discussion list. Librarians take heed -- asking specific questions on discussion lists can reveal to opposing counsel which direction a litigation response is taking. Not long ago, a request was received to obtain caseload statistics for two local courts in preparation for a change of venue motion. A query from the librarian at the opposing firm came up on a discussion list asking how to get caseload statistics for the same two courts! From the responses, one might anticipate what sources our opponent might rely on for this information. While this information may not change the outcome of this case, librarians and library students must avoid asking too specific a question on discussion lists that serve our relatively small communities. Additionally, library students and librarians must examine the ethical considerations of discussion list activity. Are there some questions we should not respond to if we are involved in litigation specific to those questions? What is the appropriate level of help one can expect to receive or take time to give our colleagues during our work day?
  • Archiving and Pathfinders: One way to protect your anonymity but still query the Web for research help is to look at the archives of discussion lists. For instance, you can find archived discussions from the law librarian list. Alternatively, you can use a Web search engine to find pathfinders for your specific need. A recent request involved the "official statement" by an issuer of specific municipal bonds. Reference work is always a learning experience and even "seasoned" professionals encounter new questions and the opportunity to add to their experience. A search for researching bonds in Google turned up a Business Week column which in turn led to the DPC Data Document Center where, with the help of a credit card, the needed official statement was purchased and downloaded in minutes. The use of archived materials facilitated locating these documents without alerting any local practitioners to my interest. We don't discourage library students from seeking the help of experienced librarians, but we do try to foster independent thought and action in budding librarian professionals.

Interest in law librarianship and the need to perform basic legal research continues to grow. In the past three years of teaching the Legal Information Sources and Services at Wayne State University's Library and Information Science program, the enrollment has increased each year, even though the majority of students did not plan to work as full-time law librarians. This year we were asked about the possibility of an advanced course for legal research. Public librarians, special librarians and legal practitioners can learn from those of us who are inclined to teach. Is there an opportunity for you to share your "lessons learned" with others in your community?

Links Mentioned in this Article

American Association of Law Libraries Education for A Career in Law librarianship

  • Link: http://www.aallnet.org/committee/tfedu/education.html

The Conference of Law Library Educators

  • Link: http://courses.unt.edu/chandler/CONFERENCELAWLIB/
    aallconeducators.htm

The Process of Legal Research

  • Link: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/073551223X/
    lawlibraryresourA/

Basic Legal Research

  • Link: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0735511985/
    lawlibraryresourA/

Legal Information Buyer's Guide and Reference Manual

  • Link: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0965103218/
    lawlibraryresourA/

American Legal Systems: A Resource and Reference Guide

  • Link: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0870842668/
    lawlibraryresourA/

The Virtual Chase

  • Link: http://www.virtualchase.com/index.shtml

"Law Librarianship"

  • Link: http://www.llrx.com/guide-gen/3/543.html

"Law Librarians"

  • Link: http://www.llrx.com/guide-gen/2/542.html

Martindale-Hubbell Law Digest

  • Link: http://corporate.martindale.com/xp/Corporate/Login/
    introduction.xml

archived discussions from the law librarian list

  • Link: http://lawlibrary.ucdavis.edu/LAWLIB/lawlib.html

Google

  • Link: http://www.google.com/

Business Week column

  • Link: http://www.businessweek.com/2000/00_45/b3706195.htm

DPC Data Document Center

  • Link: http://www.dpcdata.com/