In one of our later advanced legal research and writing class of the term, we turned our attention from traditional primary and secondary material to alternative or less-expected legal research resources. I posted earlier on the portion of the class in which we learned strategies to mine Twitter for legal research. The other broad angle we looked at addressed strategies and tools to assist in finding helpful secondary resources in legal blogs and other open web information sources.
Legal research in blogs
I think it’s fair to suggest legal blogs are so widespread and well-known that they may be more expected and less alternative than, for example, Twitter. To use the legal blogs and open web content as legitimate secondary (and sometimes primary) resources though, we can’t neglect the fundamentals of a good legal research process. Critical evaluation of information in blogs and efficient strategies to access useful information are core elements of the process, and they incorporate some attention beyond random googling or even morning reads of the RSS feed.
We discussed searching legal blogs for secondary information on specific legal topics, and we executed a few sample searches: one with the phrase “curative proviso,”, and another with the phrase “Rand Formula” and the added keyword Bernard: These targeted commentary on recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions we had decided, in our example, we wanted to know more about.
Legal blog-specific and blog-specific search tools
We tried the custom search tool at lawblogs.ca: We found the search successfully pulled a good variety of blog posts limited to the keywords we searched. Because the results list was extensive, we refined our search to limit by date range feature but had a bit of trouble excluding older posts. Nonetheless, the relevancy ranking seemed to promote the new articles, and we also re-sorted by date to display the most recent posts on top.
We also found a successful blog search in the ever-more-tucked-away google.ca/blogsearch. This search retrieved a small result set of recent, relevant Canadian blog posts focusing on the terms we used. The searches we executed with this tool, which still targeted a couple of recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions, pointed the class to the highly informative blog thecourt.ca (housed at Osgoode), which, I suspect, is now a bookmarked site for the students.
We suspected the Canadianness of our results was attributable both to the content of our search queries and to any IP information Google might pull: Our results were the same whether we used google.ca or google.com. We discussed the experience that Google’s suggested search completions and its top-ranked results do relate to our search histories and caches, as well as to our location. Recognizing this can occasionally unduly narrow the scope of our searches, we tried DuckDuckGo—a search engine that doesn’t track search histories or other information. It produced slightly different results overall, although on the narrower “curative proviso” search there was more overlap. A lesson from this experience was to try more than one search tool, and to include a non-tracking engine like DuckDuckGo.
The search results in DuckDuckGo pointed us to the option to try our search on Scribd—which is a great idea because, among the many wonderful things it does, Scribd hosts loads and loads of primary legal materials, the PDFs of which are searchable. We saw the value of accessing Scribd content categorized by the user who uploaded it, which is analogous to searching a library catalogue or database for other secondary material written by an author of a specific resource we found useful. As a nice bonus, we came across CANs or law school outlines posted by SLSCalgary and other similar Scribd users.
Once again, critical evaluation is fundamental. As with any piece of information, basic research literacy requires us to consider factors like authority, credibility, and perspective of the blog post or similar content. If I’m reading a blog discussion about a recent labour law case, I need to consider whether this blog author’s perspective is influenced by the firm’s regular representation of unions or employers, for instance. Or I need to look at the profile of the person or organization who posted the particular Scribd document I’m reading, for example.
And I learned about Ghostery, a web privacy tool that can block ads and cookies, or can let one decide which to allow, and I learned about WOT—Web of Trust—a browser add-on that can give reputation information about sites to help us evaluate new ones.
A future iteration of this class will benefit from CanLII Connects—which, at the date of this class wasn’t yet available for our exploration. But it gives us something to look forward to tomorrow.
[Note: This post is adapted from content written by me and published on our private course blog.]