In our last column we talked of communicating our reference needs to or answering those reference needs from colleagues. But what happens when your patron adequately communicates his/her needs and your stellar reference interview technique reveals your patron is asking something of which you have little or no familiarity. What to do? Reserve some of that collegial good will to yourself and refrain from posting to an electronic discussion list first thing. Treat your lack of familiarity with the subject as a reference request and learn a little more about the area with which you are unfamiliar. Put bibliographic tools, research guides and treatises to use as well as your own research skills and you'll be helping yourself as well as a colleague.
If you haven't already become familiar with Kendall F. Svengalis' Legal Information Buyer's Guide & Reference Manual get yourself a copy immediately or check Lexis (Library: BUSREF, LEXREF & File: LEGBGD) if you are in a hurry. This resource alerts you to the classics in many subject areas and since the materials described are well-known, you will want to check those first if you think they will cover your topic.
Another print source that can be a life saver is editor Penny Hazelton's looseleaf, Specialized Legal Research (Aspen Publishers). Penny discusses many of the major headache areas of legal research - Securities, Federal Income Taxation, Copyright just to name a few. Many different sources are included in each chapter, so if you want an internet source rather than a classic print source, check this publication to see if it covers your subject.
Of course, there are lots of internet guides for various topics of legal research and we will not pretend to cover all of them here. However, we must mention our colleagues here at LLRX who have created very practical resource guides to lots of very specific areas of law (especially strong in areas of foreign and international guides) - just search LLRX for your area of need. Another top-notch source for practical guides to specific areas of research is Genie Tyburski's Virtual Chase. The clean style of these guides makes for easy reading and along the right-hand side are listed relevant government agencies for links to digging deeper.
But what if you have a topic not covered by these sources? Sometimes a quick Google search (you don't need the link to this one!) will lead you to nifty guides. For instance, the Jacob Burns Law Library at George Washington University Law School has some very helpful and very specific guides - found these looking for information on Public Contracts law - but they have more than just that topic. In fact, we suspect it is fair to say that many academic law librarians have contributed to the efficiency of their students and to law librarianship by preparing helpful pathfinders on specific research. While sometimes it is useful to find an academic law library that will likely cover the topic - if seeking Minnesota appellate briefs your best bet for a guide is the University of Minnesota site - at other times, give a first nod to the fine folks who work at your neighborhood universities. Check your local school's library website before calling upon the entire nation-you may be surprised at what you find and you likely can obtain the needed materials quickly.
Are you working on something very specific and find that you need a real expert in the field? How about checking an association's or trade organization's websites? If you need information about Native American law, you can find plenty of information at the AALL website-just search Native American at the front page and you get a link to the Native American Caucus with excellent links to useful websites. We have had good luck checking with local chapters of SLA (Special Libraries Association) when we are seeking direction in the foreign (to us) lands of insurance policies or medical standards.
More frequently of late we have noted references to WorldCat or FirstSearch in postings to listservs. That is a trend to be applauded. If you can locate a title that sounds like it would be useful to you, WorldCat will give you a list of libraries holding that title. This serves two purposes-you might want to call and borrow the book or you might want to call and talk to the librarian. The collection may be particularly deep or exhaustive in just the area you are seeking. If you think you may not have access to WorldCat remember that many public libraries offer that access as part of their webpages. If you have a library card, you probably have access.
Finally-you have exhausted every clever angle in your search for the unfamiliar topic and you want to query a listserv. Be kind to your colleagues and put some hint of your needs into the subject line of your e-mail. Not everyone needs to read your request for materials on insurance under Chinese law, so alert readers before they open the e-mail.
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".