This time around the Legal Research Unplugged column is a little less legal and a little more plugged-in than usual. As often is the case, I have been thinking about the way students and young lawyers carry out research and the way we teach or guide them in this (the “we” being the more experienced research lawyers, teachers, and librarians who are tasked with or take on the responsibility). However, this time around my thoughts have turned to research skill with tools other than the traditional legal resources, in particular, skill with the tools of a “plugged-in” researcher. Perhaps this is because I am not in the law firm environment at present so I did not participate in delivering the annual instructional program that aspires to furnish new students with the clearly-defined skills and strategies of adept legal researchers.
I have been wondering about the extent to which instructional programs dedicate enough time to non-legal research, specifically using electronic (non-legal) resources, including the Internet. I haven’t participated in a survey of this question recently, so I don’t know what is done in different law firms, courts, legal departments, universities, and the like. My own experience is that there has not been any solid coaching in these skills. Subscription databases of non-legal information generally have been off-limits to students, instead being the realm of what we used to call the “power searchers”.
There was a time when legal research programs in which I was involved offered a couple of hours exploring different Internet search engines and those pages that we used to call metasites, on various subjects beyond the bookmarked legal sites. We discussed what Boolean searching meant, and in which search engines the use of “AND” between terms or the use of quotes had any impact. At that time, it seemed – to teacher and, I believe, student – that information professionals and experienced researchers actually had some useful insights to share.
Has this all changed? Has the obviously ubiquitous nature of web searching changed the dynamic or relationship between student and teacher when it comes to instruction in electronic non-legal research and, as a consequence, the need for this instruction? I do believe the perceived student-teacher dynamic on this subject has changed. Because many students are clearly quite experienced in the use of the Internet, they may not necessarily believe an information professional has anything to offer them. Similarly, there is a risk that more experienced researchers perceive their own experience as old-school or out-of-date, given the pace of creation of new resources and tools.
I also do believe that the need for instruction in electronic non-legal resources does exist, and this instruction definitely should be retained or incorporated in student programs. I know research exists on the way newer graduates – or a younger generation (an unfortunate generalization of the demographics of law students) – access information on the Internet, but I can’t point to any results at the time of this writing. (If others can, please feel free to comment.)
I can offer some observations, though, based my own experience in working one-to-one with students. I have seen very few students type a URL or part of a URL directly into a browser location bar. The default means of accessing web information seems to be to open Google – and only Google – and type words into the search box. I can’t say I have often seen students use any search syntax, even if only quotation marks. This might be a testament to the quality of the results produced in the type of search very frequently carried out, which is a search for the home page of an organization. Or it might be argued that, as search algorithms and design improve, advanced techniques are redundant. However, when the task is to use the web for actual in-depth research such as background information on a subject, a person, an organization, an issue – anything beyond the location of a previously-identified web site or a crossword-solution type of answer – the results most standard search engines will produce from a single-box, syntax-less search will be pages and pages long, with little indication of what is useful and what is junk. The most likely outcome in this scenario will be a quick skim of the first page or two of results. The information professional, though, can illustrate the benefits of a strategic approach to searching. For example, one can show demonstrate whatever functions are available for the particular search engine – for example, boolean connectors and date restrictions – whether on an advanced search page or by using known syntax. Or one can show the advantages of using tables of contents and drill-down menus rather than a search box in the upper right-hand corner.
We often emphasize secondary sources as a starting point in legal research. There is no denying, though, that students tackling a research problem (strictly legal or not) will often head to the Internet before even using an established legal database. Any research instruction program should also include a component on skillful Internet searching. And coaching students in this skill should have the effect of improving their techniques in those established databases and in internal knowledge management systems as well. A nice side effect should be to affirm the relevance and expertise of the experienced information professional.