Know Your Library


Well, here we are at the start of a new school year with a whole new crop of 1L’s and a whole bunch of returning 2 and 3L’s ready to dig into the heavy stuff.   I guess what I’m going to say is skewed to 1L’s who aren’t “set in their ways” yet, but for all the rest of you too, I’m going to give you a tip that will help you greatly now and later on in your career.   The advice is simple — get to know your library.   I mean really, really well!

Sometimes the irony of the view from the reference desk gets to me.   I watch students sit in the library and look at their laptop screens all day long while surrounded by thousands and thousands of books, never looking up, never going into the stacks, never asking questions.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-technology.   I love gadgets.   I’ve got two laptops, a netbook, a chromebook, and two smartphones.   I also happen to love libraries (always have) and had years of library use experience before I ever started working in one.   So I can go either way on research and, more importantly, my library knowledge informs the way I use technology.

There have been alarms raised in education circles for about two decades now about the decline in student library skills, research skills, literacy and writing skills, and even cognitive reasoning skills.   School library budgets have shrunk and shrunk, public libraries are in financial crisis, and the technology explosion fostered the idea that analog is irrelevant.   Though the topic I’m getting to is legal research, it’s true in general that if you have the idea “If it’s not online it doesn’t exist” or “If it’s not online I’m not going to do it,” then you have severely limited yourself in a lot of areas.

If you are one of those whose library skills are lacking, you have a golden opportunity to not only boost your law school success but boost your future law career success as well.   Here’s the plan — learn one thing about the library every day.   I know you’re busy and have millions of pages to read and papers to write, but just take 15 minutes a day to learn one library thing, especially if you’re in the library anyway.   Start by taking a break from your laptop, get up, stretch, and just walk around a little to see what is there.   Those cryptic looking call numbers that look so scary — you can learn the basic number system in 15 minutes.  Then you just need to know which direction the numbers go on the shelves and you’re on your way to finding anything quickly.   Play around with the catalog to see how it works and get familiar with it.   Ask questions about “How do I…”   If you’re saying to yourself, as many people do, “Ahhh, legal research is all online now,” you have crippled you research capabilities.

What kicked off this whole topic was the article “Law Firm Legal Research Requirements for New Attorneys” in the Law Library Journal, which you can read here.   You should read it. Here is a quote:

Many students and entry-level attorneys do not know how to conduct secondary source research (or see the need to do so), yet firms are requiring that they perform thorough secondary source research.  Law firms are reporting with alarm that new associates have the dangerous tendency to start a research project in an unfamiliar area of law by searching primary law databases instead of first consulting a good practice guide in order to learn the law and language of a particular subject area. Here is a typical comment:

Most [new associates] do not know how to use a library catalog to find materials.   Most of them do not know how to use an index.  Most of them do not know the difference between the table of contents and the index.   Most of them think that they need to go directly to researching case law online, and are unaware of how secondary sources should be used.

So the modest proposal of fifteen minutes a day will obviously not only help you with success in law school studies, but could be a crucial key to your career success.   Library skills are learned by doing, so go ahead and get to know your library.   You’ll be glad you did, and so will your future boss.

Photo: William J. Jameson Law Library, courtesy Bob  Peck

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