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Researching Foreign and International Current Events

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In my professional experience working as a law librarian in multiple types of institutions, most of the time a question about or related to a situation happening in a foreign country or at the international level comes primarily through one scenario: the researcher read about it in an online media outlet, newspaper, article, blog, tweet, etc. and wants to know more. Understanding, finding relevant sources and making sense of a rapidly (d)evolving and fast moving situation in a foreign country or internationally is an incredibly complicated and labor intensive type of research, no matter how much experience you have in the subject or country. To hopefully alleviate some of the pressure on these requests from researchers, I created a monthly series, called Through the FCIL Lens, shared in the blog of the Foreign, Comparative and International Law (FCIL) group within the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL). In this monthly series, I strive to give readers a summary with all the known and relevant information on what’s currently happening, some analysis from experts, and most importantly for the researchers, I also include at least three academic articles which help connect the situation on the ground to larger conversations and trends.

I’d like to think that my purpose and hard work behind the series were confirmed a few weeks ago when the dramatic current events in Sri Lanka made international headlines in major newspapers, magazines and social media. Given my obsession and unhealthy consumption of foreign and international news, I featured the increasingly deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka as one of the “hotspots” to observe back in April 2022. I’m not claiming any sort of superpower, nor advocating for others to compulsively follow international news. The point is that when you are tasked with researching and finding authoritative sources in order to understand an explosive current situation in a foreign country, 97% of the time, it is not a situation coming out of nowhere. Your job is to find the relevant resources to help you link the current situation on the ground to previously documented situations, people and trends.

In this post, I will mention a few crucial steps that I take in order to come up with a successful research strategy. Similarly to what I do in my legal research classes, I’m not going to enumerate a list of websites and hope the researcher finds their way. If you do that, a lot of the time, they’re left with websites which are not updated, don’t work or with a list of broken links taking you nowhere. Therefore, I will talk briefly about the initial steps I take when building a research strategy that has worked for me and also the limitations to this type of research requests that we should all be aware of.

First, your main goal should be to look for specific names of people, institutions, places, perhaps a specific case or legislation. You’re aiming to find one proper name (many, if you’re lucky!) and use it as your keyword to search for sources which will help you link the current situation to previous trends, events or any relevant information. In the case of the current crisis in Sri Lanka, one of the main characters is the recently deposed president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. If you search for his name in both free sources and subscription-based databases, you will quickly find out lots of important information. For example, he belongs to a “political dynasty” which has taken control of the country for decades and also he was hailed as a “war hero” after his leading involvement in ending the country’s civil war in 2009. These two points are undoubtedly incredibly significant for any researcher to understand the current crisis and its importance to Sri Lankan people.

Two things to keep in mind when working with foreign names is transliteration when using our Latin script and full names. Usually, when a person is not regularly featured in Western media outlets, there is a plethora of transliteration options and not one uniformed way to write a person’s name using the Latin script. Depending on how long and how often during and after the current event this person’s name is used, journalists, academics and experts might finally arrive at a consensus on how to spell a person’s name using Latin script. For example, I have seen Gotabaya, Gothabaya, G. Rajapaksa, Rajapaska, Rajapakse and many more. Another important point when it comes to names is the full names of these important players. As I said before, the Rajapaksa family is a political dynasty in Sri Lanka with numerous important people. Therefore, you might want to use someone’s full name in order to avoid any confusion. For example, Gotabaya’s full name is actually Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapksa. Using his full name will bring up specific information related to his involvement in previous historical events in the country. Again, you’re doing all these steps to help you connect the current situation with larger and older conversations and trends. These names and proper nouns will serve as your connectors with more relevant information.

Overall, you have two major limitations when pursuing this type of research: not everything is translated into English and not everything is online. In my experience, this is the moment of truth. As a Foreign and International Law Librarian, I try to be as honest as possible with my users. Foreign and International Legal Research can be incredibly interesting and rewarding, but it also takes time and lots of extra steps. The current situation in Sri Lanka might be making its way into major Western and English speaking media outlets. However, for people in Sri Lanka, this is their pressing and tumultuous reality. Therefore, it’s fair to say that the overwhelming amount of information will be primarily in Sinhala and maybe Tamil, the two official languages of Sri Lanka. On top of that, a significant amount of primary sources might not be available online, due to lack of resources, but also to the current chaotic situation in the country. In these instances, you will need to get creative and find secondary sources as well as contacting experts which might be able to help you. I shared some related ideas in my previous post on Legal Research Without Official Diplomatic Relations.

Good luck! Please feel free to add any steps you take yourself regarding this type of research in the comments section or contact me directly.

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