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Reference from Coast to Coast

By Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen, Published on April 22, 2006

Jan Bissett is Reference Librarian with Dickinson Wright PLLC.

Margi Heinen is the Manager of Library Services at Sherman and Howard.

We're back! After a somewhat extended hiatus from our column, Reference from Coast to Coast, we're returning to explore some of the discrete and exacting, detailed or difficult, and sometimes just plain frustrating research requests that librarians face - in other words, the stuff we do every day. We return to you older [where did all that time go?] and we're hoping wiser or at least more experienced in the way we do the things we do. We'll be writing on the process of research as well as updating several of our previous columns every other month or so.

Just as you do, we take in the things around us. And one of the observations we have about our profession, from the view of electronic lists, is the trite - the more things change the more they remain the same. One of the difficulties that has always faced law librarians is communication in the receiving and responding to research requests. We expect false starts and inarticulate mumblings from our patrons but what happens when those patrons are members of our own profession? How often have you had a request (via phone, e-mail or in person) take the form of "Get me the case of the widow in Florida!" And then the phone goes "Click", the elevator door shuts or the e-mail ends. We all hear about the "reference interview" but often don't really get a chance to experience it without some trial and error. This same problem occurs when law librarians communicate with each other. Too often we try to give a quick request or send a quick answer without really talking about what we really hope to find or how we located specific materials. But what does this say about our professional skills? As law librarians we need to be articulate in both the questions we ask (think law-lib) and complete in the answers we give.

This does not mean we bore our patrons with lengthy answers when short ones will do, but when we speak to each other we should give value-added answers so that the librarian asking the question learns something about the process of finding the answer, as well as the answer itself. We must also respect our colleagues and not ask too much of them - the electronic discussion lists are not a stand-in for document delivery or interlibrary loan services, nor are they a free for all request for a bibliographic search and detailed holdings in a specific geographic area or a request to violate copyright. It's one thing if you're unfamiliar or inexperienced with a particular research topic, but do you really want to be revealing to your employer or your client that you are incapable of performing one of the basic duties of research? Think!!

And to help you think - let's take a look at two specific sources which may help introduce you to various reference topics. The Boston College Law Library recently introduced a new Question-Answer column featuring a Reference Question of the Week blog. This collection of reference questions should be required reading for new law librarians - required not because you can memorize quick ways to find a specific answer, but because the column spends some time discussing where one can look and that process is transferable to lots of research questions. These questions illustrate types of questions that are asked by that law library's patrons and it's good to take a look at what members of our profession handle on a daily basis.

Another source which illustrates the ins and outs of reference work is Mary Whisner's Practicing Reference, a regular feature in Law Library Journal. These columns have addressed both procedural and substantive research as well as administrative, policy, and professional ethics issues. Although both of these sources originate with academic law librarians - we need to embrace and recognize our similarities and take from each other what can be applicable to our own situations. Communicating with your peers and developing relationships is an important step along the way in your professional life.

In our future columns we hope to communicate both the intricacies of the research process and the importance of old-fashioned human courtesy, creativity and serendipity in a profession where technology is useful but sometimes inadequate (think Desk Set with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn). To facilitate a dialog, we invite you to send your comments on research process and problems to Margi Heinen. We look forward to stimulating "conversation".