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Reference from Coast to Coast - Oldies But Goodies With a New Twist

By Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen, Published on September 14, 2000

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 legal researcher must be aware of dates. We cannot perform the most basic research without concern for the age of the material in front of us and knowing how to determine whether it is still current. The increased use of the Internet and computerized legal research tools in general have blurred time/coverage issues. Occasionally we hear people say "I searched online so I have everything there is." Yet often these same searchers have not examined scope notes to see just how in-depth a particular database's coverage may be or how recently it has been updated. We all need to be reminded to evaluate and become familiar with coverage provided by data aggregators. Several recent requests crossing our desks illustrate how important being aware of dates/coverage can be in fulfilling reference requests or evaluating new electronic sources.

Miscellaneous announcements and preambles; both requests from outside our libraries, but could we help? Sure! Glad to - what information do you have? The first request involves the text of IR-1731, a miscellaneous announcement dated January 11, 1977. Miscellaneous announcements are funny things, not ha!ha! funny, just peculiar. Published by the Internal Revenue Service in the weekly Internal Revenue Bulletin (I.R.B.) concerning information on substantive issues of interest to taxpayers, they are republished by many tax loose-leaf services, usually in a "current rulings" volume. Announcements were not generally included in the Cumulative Bulletin, the semi-annual compilation of materials from the I.R.B., until 1998. So, what's the problem? Plenty of tax materials available electronically! Ah, but what about coverage? Dates are important, remember!

The IRS does provide access to both the I.R.B. and C.B. with coverage starting in 1996 and with the 1995-2 volume, respectively. And the requestor's electronic subscription to CCH's Standard Federal Tax Reports' archives began coverage in 1984. BNA's Daily Tax Report: TaxCore®, providing electronic access to the full text of "essential tax documents", began in 1998. Tax Analyst's Taxbase offers Announcements as part of their Basic Reference Library with coverage from 1990 to date. Hmm, not a freebie or part of an electronic subscription, but Lexis® and Westlaw® are viable options, aren't they? Well, actually, no. Lexis® includes Announcements from January 1, 1981 in its I.R.B. materials. Researchers may check coverage in the Guide Library if using Lexis® software or in the Source Locator if using the web, Westlaw®'s FTX-ANN database provides coverage beginning with the 1980-1 C.B. and 1988-1 I.R.B. (including announcements). Westlaw® users can check the "Scope" of a database by selecting the "Scope" tab while using the software or the "Scope" notes within the Westlaw® Directory. All this explanation takes longer than the actual request - go to the shelf, grab the volume and locate the text of IR-1731, in this case as republished in The Law of Federal Taxation: 1977 Rulings [Merten's].

One of the most frequently encountered (and truly annoying) electronic coverage issues concerns older volumes of the Federal Register. The Federal Register is the daily publication of United States federal agency rulings including Presidential documents, rules and regulations, proposed rules, notices and finding aids. Often an older issue is needed for the important preamble that appears before the language of proposed rules. This explanation of proposed changes becomes especially valuable if that proposed language becomes final and attorneys or judges need to interpret those changes. GPO's Federal Register coverage began in 1994. Lexis® and Westlaw® provide access back to 1980. That coverage, however, does not include major rule promulgation for many pension and environmental regulations. To locate materials prior to 1980, we must return to the older formats of microfiche and paper. Academic and depository libraries retain older issues of the Federal Register and other government documents such as the Congressional Record. Annual indexes to the Federal Register should also be available at depository libraries if you are searching for rulemaking when you have no specific date or issue reference.

Awareness of dates and coverage provided by data aggregators is not limited to specific historical documents. Some of the newest competitors for our legal research dollars evidence no understanding of the value we place on dates and accurate descriptions of coverage. Recently, marketing for TheLaw.net went into overdrive in our area. We were invited to sample their service and accepted that invitation. A check of TheLaw.net's comparison of its coverage with Lexis® and Westlaw® revealed something of interest to Michigan case law researchers: Michigan Court of Appeals coverage from 1930. Sounds promising, unless you're familiar with the Michigan Court of Appeals - this court has only been in existence since 1965! Yet another reminder of the value of being aware of dates and coverage issues while researching or evaluating potential research tools in any format.