Is there too much choice out there? Do we need 35 varieties of coffee? 46 cereal options? 17 brands of garbage bags? Over half a dozen sites to find US caselaw? At least the same number for cases from England and Wales? Did we ask for all this choice? And do we need it?
The longer I teach legal research, the more complex it becomes. Not the content, that’s pretty much as it always was. But getting to the right answer in a timely fashion depends on so many variables that it is no wonder eyes roll and heads shake as we try to de-mystify these intricacies for our students.
Legal research was once pretty linear. Cases could be found via consolidated indexes in law report series, you could work out the history of a case via a citator, and when you had parallel citations you tried to locate the best report in the appropriate law report series in a library. In the UK, Canada, Australia, legal editors did the work of selecting the cases with new, different or special points of law; they created keywords, headnotes, a whole lot of value adding to pre-digest the law for you.
Now you find different citators on several databases; or one series of law reports restricted to another database. If you want commentary you need to go to a third resource. Some databases provide the pdf of the original, others don’t. Some databases updated legislation; others only publish acts as passed. Some official reports are only available online from one source; the unofficial version of the same cases can be found on free as well as subscription resources. Why should students understand that Halsbury’s can only be found on Lexis because Lexis bought Butterworths who published Halsbury’s in paper? And that the Common Law Series are only on Westlaw because they bought Sweet and Maxwell?
I know, much of this irrelevant most of the time when you are doing legal research. You go to the same old trusty site and most times you get what you want. But are you getting the best? Is the segmentation of the field, the parallel offerings, the constant duplication – with minor variations – really adding value to your service to your clients? I doubt it.
So one service that might be of use to you in wading through the quicksand of multiple sources is the library research guide produced by your friendly librarian. You don’t have a librarian? Oh, and you don’t have a library anymore because it’s all online? Never fear, there is still a librarian out there, to help you, virtually.
I am referring to a service out there called LibGuides. These resources provide subject, course and topic guides. This is their strap line:
‘Search and explore 431,689 guides by 66,259 librarians at 4799 libraries worldwide! ‘
Scarey, huh? Not really. What started as a neat content management system to make it easier for librarians to record all the resources they wished to highlight to their readers/users, has grown into an amazingly useful resource, whether you use one of the libraries or not. Most librarians use the software to list resources which include freely available websites that are relevant to the topic, in addition to the holdings of their libraries.
So you think you would get the same result by googling? No, sorry, not true. What the librarians have done on your behalf is search, identify and authenticate relevant websites, books, journals. So most times you can use the Guides with confidence. The beauty of these guides is the overall consistency of structure, under the branding by institution.
We have our LibGuides at the Bodleian Law Library organised by jurisdiction and topic. Shameless plug here – the Bodleian started to use this software (by Springshare) some 4 or so years ago, and the list we have across our libraries is quite impressive. But it is by no means the highest number, many US academic libraries exceed our 300.
For librarians, using LibGuides has meant that we can concentrate on the content, and not worry about designs and layout; this is all done for us via easy to use templates. Signing up for the software also means we get statistics on usage, helping us to gauge what has worked, and what might need improvement, what topics are popular or trending, and what has fallen out of fashion. Librarians might like to look here to find out more.
So why would a lawyer want to use a LibGuide? Lawyers might like to use the search box at this page (where a search can be limited to academic institutions), and enter topics like Tax law, or Media law, or Italian law, etc. You will find resources which include online tutorials, list of key texts in the field according to the jurisdiction of the institution, lists of free and commercial online resources – often the perfect starting point, and more focussed than a similar search on Google.