How Deep Is Your Usual Legal Research Dive?

Reading Susan Munro’s post about some of the interesting products and services she learned of at the CALL conference got me thinking. Susan noted:

Countervailing forces (for example, the common use of Google as a first stop for all kinds of research) pull us away from deep-dive research. I keep hearing about the legal research habits of law students and newer lawyers: they start with Google and often go no further.

It is interesting to step back and think about what patterns exist for legal research. If most often a legal research need is fulfilled by a surface scrape, what does that mean for the practical needs of the deep dive research, especially if that is a less frequent occurrence. If everything is written, published, and made accessible so that it fulfills the scrape, can it also fulfill the deep dive? Thinking about it from my library perspective, what does that mean for collecting legal research resources.

Thinking of my own research habits, I could likely describe my legal research with the 80/20 Rule. 80% of the time I am looking for a specific item or small piece of information that will answer a question that is really just scraping the surface of a topic. 20% of the time I am looking deep into a subject to find everything I can that is relevant in the time allowed.

The 80/20 rule, also known as Pareto’s Principle is a common theme in quality work and process improvement, project management, finance, etc. – it is math so it is everywhere. In quality 20 percent of the defects cause 80 percent of the problems. From project management, 20 percent of the work (the first and last 10%) consume 80 percent of the time and resources. The theme is that 80 percent of the output comes from 20 percent of the input.

If we think about the 80/20 rule for law library collections and content is there a way to minimize the impact of the imbalance that the 80/20 rule suggests and yet still provide a collection that can answer a deep dive question? Which collections shouuld be able to offer the deep dive question – law firm, courthouse or barristers library, a university law faculty question, a law library accessible to the public? Should a law firm library be able to answer 80 percent of the deep dive questions within its collection or just 80 percent of the questions?

I think these philosophical questions are of critical importance for planning in law libraries. Does 20 percent of our library collection budget go to sources that answer 80 percent of the questions? Should 20 percent of physical collection answer 80 percent of the questions or are these the resources that we need for the deepest dive?

What answers are we OK with paying for up front and if we don’t pay now for the answer we will need in the future – will we be able to find that answer later?

Comments are closed.