How Will We Find What’s Outside Our Walled Gardens?

I have been thinking about discoverability of legal information materials for some time and worrying that in many cases it isn’t as good as it could be. At the Canadian Association of Law Libraries in Moncton last month the exhibitor hall was full of people with the goal of selling attendees information products in various forms. There were fewer people there with the goal of helping make those purchased materials accessible once they are acquired.

Legal information materials’ primary users have generally been subject experts (of various degrees), and this has meant that there has been less pressure to improve discovery of new resources than in subject areas that have been more focused on providing services to the general pubic or undergraduate students. This, coupled with the relatively small number of resources, and existence of library staff to help, means that the issue of how to find materials in small to moderate sized law libraries is in some ways fairly new. One looked in the library catalogue and a small number of preferred electronic services.

In our shared nostalgia, libraries primarily acquired print materials in a reasonably standardized size and format that would fit on standard shelving. We would catalogue these materials to record their information and location. The libraries were sized so that a person working with them could know them intimately, and they often had a limited number of people who were permitted to take them off site. The books were shelved with others on the same topics, and there were organized ways to find other print materials in slightly different formats, like journals, that were on a shelf in a slightly different location. There were plentiful, relaxed staff (it is nostalgia after all) who would assist people if they needed help, which they seldom really did, because the primary users were all trained on this system over a period of years.

Now, in addition to the print materials discussed above, which are much more difficult to keep in one place than they used to be, there are electronic materials available through various platforms, some web based and some that require the installation of custom software. These materials lack the advantage of physical presence as a way to draw attention to themselves, and unless one knows they exist they are invisible. So someone or something must draw attention to them in order for them to be used. This problem has been masked by the skills of the professional legal researchers and presence of experts in the library, but there must be significant under use of high value content, though lack or awareness or forgetfulness.

At the CALL-ACBD Conference I spoke with Kathleen Richman of LLMC about how library users at subscribing institutions find LLMC content as they research. She says that they have asked the libraries with the highest usage what they attribute the uptake of their resources to, and in every case they attribute it to having loaded the catalogue records for LLMC content into their catalogues. The effects from type of research or other reasons were minimal: 70% of LLMC usage comes from library catalogues and only 30% from other sources. (For any LLMC subscribers reading this: you can get the LLMC catalogue records from OCLC)

When discussing the issue of discovery, people often mention the loss of serendipity in browsing library collections as a reason for the inferiority of doing research in an electronic environment (this is admittedly discussed less now than it used to be). Aside from the observation that this only works for books no one else has thought useful enough to borrow or steal already, this is only possible with a great deal of work on organization to make it a meaningful experience. No one expresses nostalgia for doing research by browsing a big pile of books on the floor.

Search algorithms and the current generation of online interfaces are improving serendipity within platforms – if you are willing to call algorithms’ output serendipitous – but the ability to know what you are missing from the platforms is more difficult to know. One of the biggest aids to discovery is actually the library catalogue: library staff can put everything into the library catalogue that they think the users would find useful.

There are now software systems that allow better navigation among different online platforms to provide simultaneous searching of multiple sets of information at once. This usually includes the library catalogue and indexes (you can try this kind of system from UBC Library here). In a general library they don’t choose to include every subscribed resource in the discovery tool as it would be too much to reasonably wade through. Legal resources are generally not among those resources included in the search as they are too specialized. Law libraries can implement these systems themselves, in which case they can of course include any resources that are compatible with the discovery systems.

Large legal information services, such as WestlawNext and QuickLaw, are not generally compatible with libraries’ discovery systems, but I understand there are fewer restrictions on deep linking to these systems than there were in the past, which makes integration into discovery systems, if only library catalogues, easier. There is some logic to resisting the integration of their content into library systems:

“publishers are battling against the fact that in many cases, readers have a much stronger relationship with their discovery services than they do with content providers. This is no less true for scholarly publishers than it is with news brands. One has shared far more personal information with Facebook, Twitter, or Mendeley, or through a user account with Google or any of a variety of other services, than with The Times, or ScienceDirect, or Oxford Journals Online.”1

If researchers can find enough to satisfy them in a single service, there is less need for them to use others. And as systems improve the ability to find what one needs with a general search is becoming closer to reality – as long as it is included in the platform being searched.

In some ways the nostalgia for serendipitously finding materials in a library belies a nostalgia for a time when there was more hand selection in information resources and less irrelevant or unimportant material for researchers to look at: “Perhaps the most vital system for serendipity has been the journal title, which bundled together a variety of articles in a general topic area.”2 This is equally true of caselaw reporters. What legal practitioner wouldn’t think fondly of subject specific reporter series, where every case is curated, selected, and commented on. Each volume allows you to read the cases you need to know about reasonably soon after the case is released and before the next volume comes out.

Reference list

1. Roger C. Schonfeld, Grab and Go and the Gravitational Pull of Discovery, online: Scholarly Kitchen <>.

2. Roger C. Schonfeld, Personalizing Discovery without Sacrificing Serendipity, online: Scholarly Kitchen <>.


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