Taking on a Nontraditional Reference Duty

This past year, our library started strongly marketing research help in an area we had not publicized before – completing the Character and Fitness portion of the state bar application. This was a serious push: we advertised at new student orientation, we put up a website, we designed a basic LibGuide on our state requirements and other resources that might be helpful, and generally sold the heck out of the library as a helper for this process. Our campaign has been very successful. The students know to come to the librarians. They ask questions in person, over the phone, and by email.

This has, in turn, caused new issues. The first is that students want more information from us. Mostly, this is a good thing. One of the benefits of assisting with the Character and Fitness application is that the students see us as experts in research and people who can answer questions. That’s great. On the other hand, this means that we get questions about some things that require us to send students elsewhere for answers:

  • “Where do I go to take a practice bar exam?”
  • “How do I sign up for the Kaplan program?”
  • “What hotel should I use during the bar exam?”
  • “Do you have a sample study schedule for the bar?”

While any librarian can help with finding some of this information, there are people in the school whose job it is to know these answers. The takeaway for the library on this: students get frustrated if the library does not know who has the best answers. We had to come up to speed on which questions should go to career services, which to academic success, and what other departments might also have an interest in these questions. If the reference desk could clearly and confidently direct the students to a reliable source, the students were happy even if they did have to go to another office.

The second issue that arose was that of privacy. There is some sensitive stuff on the Character and Fitness application. Students will often ask about the application at the reference desk. Sometimes students ask an easy question, like how to find an address, and then launch right into something else, like how to get information on a bad check they wrote to the IRS. Eeek! It’s easy for a student to forget that he or she is speaking to a librarian in a big open space. We have had to remind students that we can make appointments to speak privately in our offices.

Although we have had to adjust some of our reference practices to accommodate this new area of assistance, it has been rewarding, both in knowing that we are helping our students with a significant task and having more students come into the library.

Citation, citation, citation!

Ah, fall. The time when the thoughts of law review staff turn to cite-checking, and 1Ls are introduced to the bane of Judge Posner’s existence.

I actually love the Bluebook. No, really. I even have the credentials to prove it, hand-made by one of our profs for me:

I heart bluebooking

But I know not everybody shares these sentiments, particularly first-year students. So, as part of the library’s first-year research instruction responsibilities, I volunteered to create tutorials that would hopefully make students’ lives – at least with respect to citation – a little easier. Ideally, this would also make the reference librarians’ lives a little easier, too – at least with respect to citation. (Prior to this, the library had not done any formal citation training for first-year students; we took questions individually at the reference desk).

I wasn’t going to tackle every rule in the Bluebook, just the rules for those sources covered in the research practice questions required of the students. This narrowed my scope down to: dictionaries, encyclopedias, ALRs, journals, treatises, cases, and statutes. Add in a couple of “introduction to citation” tutorials, and you’ve got yourself a full summer.

I’ve created tutorials before (most often with Camtasia, which is what I used for these tutorials), and I find the whole process fun, if sometimes frustrating. I wanted these tutorials to be streamlined and simple, consistent in look and feel with each other and with the other research tutorials we were creating, and as short as possible. From a pedagogical standpoint, I wanted not only to show students how to cite the various sources but to  teach them how to actually use the Bluebook. I wanted to deconstruct the rules and, as much as possible, clearly lay out the citation elements for each type of source so students could use the information to help them figure out how to cite less common sources going forward.

I had attended Jill Smith’s presentation, “Going Hollywood on Your Desktop: Creating Great Screen Capture Video,” at CALI in June and found it very informative, so I followed many of her suggestions – especially her first one, on the importance of creating a script. I had every intention of creating a script and then creating the visuals in Powerpoint slides to go with it, but the truth is those processes typically became intertwined. One thing I did do consistently at the beginning of the process was to create an Agenda slide (“this is what you will learn in this tutorial”) and a Conclusion slide (“in this tutorial, you learned…”). That helped me stick to the most important objectives of the tutorials, and, I hope, will help ground the students so they know what to expect.

I had to submit my Powerpoint slides and narration to one of the first-year research and writing directors as well as to one of the long-time adjuncts for pre-approval before production. At first I chafed at this a bit, but after a while I came to enjoy the additional eyes and suggestions for the most part. Even the adjunct’s cite-checking of my narration, which I first found ridiculous, became helpful. First, I ended up cutting-and-pasting my narration as closed-captioning, so it did turn out to be important that it be Bluebook-ready. Second, it became the equivalent of the “no brown M&Ms” rule in a rock star’s contract rider – if the narration was that thoroughly checked, I knew the text in the slides was, too.

Originally, I had wanted to be fancy and include animation during production using Powtoon or the like (another tip I got from the CALI conference). But this never panned out. I had a hard time figuring out how to animate Bluebook rules without being too cheesy, plus I just didn’t have the time. I did include animation-lite using Camtasia tools such as zooming in and/or highlighting pertinent sections of the Bluebook rules. My later tutorials also included some pretty snazzy arrows (also courtesy of Camtasia). I tried to be judicious with animation, as I know it can get tedious and distracting. But I think when used appropriately, it can keep viewers’ interest better than text alone.

I still have a couple of tutorials left to create, but by and large the project is finished. What would I do differently next time? I included a couple of quiz-type questions in a few of the tutorials, but not all. In the future, I would like have one or two prompting questions in every tutorial as I think it holds viewers’ interest more. It also provides a chance to highlight the one or two really salient topics that the viewer should have learned. Furthermore, when I edit these going forward, I’m going to try again to make them shorter. I was really surprised that most of the tutorials ended up in the 7-minute range; I was trying hard to get them all under five minutes. One thing that I did do that will be very helpful going forward, and which I encourage others to consider, is to produce every slide of the tutorial separately as its own clip. If you have to edit something, it’s much easier to do so on a 20-second clip rather than one that is five minutes.

Will they work? I can’t wait to find out!

What is a reporter?

This semester’s postings started with a great discussion on reference services. We all get interesting questions from a variety of patrons, and I am sure that every one of us has our favorite reference questions to share. But what happens when you get a question which gets at the core of legal research and it comes from an unexpected source?

Much like any academic law library, the early part of the semester is busy for our reference librarians as we are frequently working with the journal members during their cite-checking endeavors. One librarian received the question posed in the title – what is a reporter? This came from a second year student who had done well enough in the first year to make one of our competitive journals. Furthermore, our legal writing professors do a quality job incorporating the basics of legal research into the mandatory 1L curriculum. With all this in mind, the librarian provided an answer but was quite concerned that this concept had slipped through the cracks with the student. It also got me thinking about the bigger picture. What can we do when some of the basic legal research skills have gone unlearned? In my library, as I can imagine happens at many others, we use three approaches.

1. Address it one-on-one.

This is the easiest and immediate option.  It deals with the point and the student will be able to quickly move on to the next project. The problem is if one student has missed an issue, it is very likely that other students have the same questions.

2. Re-emphasize in classes.

Our library is fortunate to be very involved in the upper level curriculum. For the current academic year, we are teaching six for-credit classes covering both general and specialized legal research. Our librarians do spend time reviewing the fundamentals as we have come to realize the need to reinforce what was taught during the first year legal research and writing classes. It may take away from more advanced topics, but we feel it is too important not to highlight.

3. Create or direct to online tutorials.

A student may have a question yet not come seeking answers or be enrolled in a legal research class. We can still provide alternatives. The lessons of CALI are great for these basic questions (and I regularly get the 3:00 am email requesting the authorization code). Plus, many libraries have their own research guides covering the essentials. As we switch to LibGuides for our research guides, we are strengthening the background information on the introductory guides and have seen a high number of hits in a short period of time.

While writing this, I keep thinking that I am being too basic with my comments. However, we may not always think about reinforcing the fundamentals of legal research with upper level students. It is important to remember that some of the basics will always slip past the ever taxed law student. We have many opportunities to assist and should be as clever as possible in getting the information out there.  “What is a reporter?” – how would you deal with the question?

Teaching with Visual Legal Research Platforms

Law librarians should focus their instruction, in part, on how law students interact with, contextualize, and evaluate information while performing legal research. Our students need to know how to find information in an efficient way and understand and use that information in context.

Many of the legal research platforms currently focus on text-based results. Depending on the database, users can run a natural language or boolean search and evaluate the results based on relevance, date, most cited, etc. With text-based results, it can be a challenge for the law-librarian instructor to convey to students exactly why they are retrieving certain results and how the post-search filters can change their research interaction.

Visual Legal Platforms

There may be a time in the very near future when the major legal research platforms move away from text-based results toward more visual results. The ABA Journal recently ran an article on a variety of new visual legal research platforms. Of the list, Ravel seems very promising. As Robert Ambrogi describes in the ABA Journal article:

“Ravel does not look like traditional legal research platforms. The difference is its visual presentation of search results. Rather than display a stack of text entries, Ravel draws a visual map of the results, showing the relationships among cases and their relative importance to each other. Enter a search query and you get the standard list of matching cases displayed along the right side of your screen. But across the left three-quarters you see a cluster map showing the cases as circles of various sizes. The larger the circle, the more important the case; the most relevant cases appear in the center. Lines radiate out of the circles, connecting each case to others it cites and that cite it. The thickness of the line indicates the depth of treatment. Hover your pointer over a case and its information shows in the right pane. Click it to get a list of every case cited within it. Double-click it to get the full text.”

Robert Ambrogi, Vision Quest: Visual law services are worth a thousand words–and big money, 100 ABA Journal, May 2014.

This offers an entirely new way for users to interact with legal research. “The visualizations help researchers quickly understand the lay of the landscape for an issue—which cases are the major ones—and then better filter results to fit the research.” Id. As one developer noted, “[w]hat we’re trying to do is make the process easier, more intuitive, more thorough and give people greater confidence that they’re finding the cases that are best suited to their need.” Id.

Evaluating Results

Legal-research instruction inherently involves the evaluation of results. When it comes to case law research, understanding how the cases fit together is imperative to successful legal research. The evaluation of results typically means that students will ask, “How do I know which cases to cite?” The answer will be somewhere between, “It depends,” and a discussion about foundational cases and those cases that are closest in fact and result to their issue. Visual legal research platforms have the potential to help with these types of teaching moments.

As the ABA Journal article notes, “[t]hat is not to say that visuals will ever replace text-based research entirely. The law is text-heavy, so there will always have to be an interplay between text and visuals.” Id. But it is nice to have a new tool in a law librarian’s teaching arsenal.

I Want an Aluminum Foil Hat!

RIPS Blog August 2014

I want an aluminum foil hat! That was the first thought that crossed my mind after reading Symantec Corporation’s white paper, “How safe is your quantified self?”  In short, Symantec identified significant data security risks in many of the self-tracking devices on the market (e.g., Fitbit, Jawbone, and the now discontinued NikeFuel). And perhaps more disturbing, Symantec concluded that these are known data risks that manufacturers have no real interest in curing. Add in the news and commentary from the recent Black Hat security conference about  how televisions, refrigerators, thermostats, and many other everyday appliances pose security risks, and visions of HAL 9000 don’t seem so easy to dismiss as an outlandish figment of a science fiction imagination.

I read a wide-variety of technology reports, both the disturbing and the uplifting. I have long and loudly cheered the uplifting technology reports — those reports from studies on the role technology can play in reducing teenage pregnancies and promoting higher high school graduation rates and enrollments at post-secondary education institutions. In other words, I signed up for a Rosie the Robot, not a HAL 9000.

As a research instructor and research librarian, I function at the juncture of information and technology. An early adopter of David Lankes’  theory of “librarian as information facilitator,” I’m comfortable in this ever-evolving place. Comfort, however, doesn’t mean that I am not constantly evaluating and redefining. As part of my constant evaluation and redefinition, I spent time this summer working on a law school course proposal that explores the intersection of technology and law. The new course proposal was driven in part by my interest in understanding how technology has and will continue to enhance the delivery of legal services and in part by my unflagging optimism that technology is the best tool we have to reach the legal profession’s goal of serving all segments of our society. Perhaps it was my time at a public library reference desk, but I remain undeterred in my conviction that “access to justice” is in essence “access to information.”

An interesting thing happened on the way to developing my course proposal. First I learned that there is no shortage of talented and knowledgeable law librarians already exploring this arena. Colleagues at Emory University School of Law, Valparaiso University School of Law, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, and Suffolk University Law School shared ideas and syllabi. Second, I came to realize that I really wanted to teach two courses.

The first course is the technology of legal practice, a course that introduces and takes students through the various technologies they will encounter in legal practice. This advocacy with technology component includes topics in three broad areas: (i) legal practice management (i.e., virtual practice and cloud computing, presentation and practice management tools, social media); (ii) legal infrastructure (i.e., knowledge management and governance, outsourcing); and (iii) legal tools (i.e., competitive intelligence, e-discovery, and project management). Recent reports predict that these courses will become part of our law school curriculum. Gartner Legal IT 2020 predicts that by 2018, “legal IT courses will be required for the graduates of at least 20 U.S. Tier 1 and Tier 2 law schools.” It goes without saying that, given our expertise, law librarians are well-suited to teach these courses.

The second course, and perhaps the more interesting to me, is the legal informatics component. What is the structure and management of data? Who is managing the collection and safekeeping of private data? Who gets to decide how and when it is used? Alternatively, who is responsible for making sure that public information stays public (à la, Pacer’s architectural changes )? In sum, this area covers the ethics of technology.

Library land’s luminary and current bad boy, Stephen Abram, once told baby boomers to “get over it.” In short, the previous generation had experienced the advent of electricity, automobiles, nuclear energy, and so on. In his words, all we had had to do was learn to “double-click,” and it was time to get with the program and stop whining about technology.

I believe we will all agree that we’ve completely mastered the “double click” as we race to embrace technologies, but we often do so without fully understanding the ramifications. Even the pros jump in with out looking! Orla Cox, director of security response at Symantec, recently admitted in an NPR interview that she stopped wearing her fitness device once Symantec did the audit of the personal data devices and apps that turned up so many data insecurities.

Today’s lawyers must not simply abdicate responsibility for the ethics of technology to the “technology experts.”  So how do we get these concepts into the classroom as we work to prepare our students for practice? This is the idea that I am currently thinking about and would welcome any suggestions and ideas.