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A Survival Guide for Library Conferences

April 9, 2014

Library conferences – they leave librarians refreshed, renewed, energized, inspired, and tired (very tired).  I attended SEAALL’s conference in Knoxville last week, and I had one of my best conferences ever!  The group of librarians and the conference were great. Reflecting now, I can offer some new tips on conference attendance.

1.  Attend some programs that discuss things you think you are doing already.  There are two benefits: 1. you will get confirmation that you are doing some good work.; and 2. you will always find something new.

I went to “What’s Your Problem: Designing Engaging Assignments for Your Course.”  My assignments are usually more than a hunt and find, so I did not feel inadequate, but the presentation gave me some great ideas and a new perspective on assignments for legal research.

2. Attend programs that address new ideas for your area.  The benefit here: brand new ideas.

I attended “Beyond the Bound Research Text” with presenters from the University of South Carolina and the University of Kentucky.  Both schools are using LibGuides to build their own legal research texts for their students.  What a great idea!  And USC admitted that they had gotten the idea for theirs from Kentucky at the conference the year before.

3. Go to at least one program that you think doesn’t apply to you at all.  There is always a benefit: a new perspective and better overall knowledge of how libraries work.

A presentation titled “But I Just Work in the Back: The Rocky Road to a Combined Circulation and Technical Services Department” was not about research and instruction, which is my focus.  But I went, and it was great.  The presentation, by librarians from Stetson University Law Library, showed how work flow can be mapped to make departments more interdependent and more effective.  Although it was about technical services, it gave me some ideas about reference – maybe everyone should rotate through certain duties, for example.  Also, it gave me ideas to take back to other people in my library.

4. Skip a program, and talk to someone interesting.  Benefit: Twofold, again.  One, closer ties to other libraries and librarians.  Two, great spontaneous brainstorming of ideas for classes, programs and research problems.

I skipped the second program on Friday morning to talk to librarians from Wake Forest and Florida.  They had some great ideas about problems for teaching, including cutting edge laws on technology.  Plus, I got to hang out with amazing librarians (one of which was escorting our own Puron Ripssis around the conference - send Puron a friend request on Facebook for the best pictures).

5. Volunteer.  This is a benefit to the organization and to you – you get to contribute to the organization and the organization gets your expertise.

I volunteered to make a t-shirt quilt to help with the Service Project.  I got to talk to almost everyone at the conference as they looked at the quilt.  And the proceeds went to a local charity that provides books to children. A win-win.

What are your tips for conferences as we move into conference season?


A Call for Your Ideas

April 2, 2014

This summer’s AALL Annual Meeting in San Antonio promises to provide numerous helpful programs, roundtables, and networking opportunities.  In fact, ALL-SIS and RIPS are working together to host a Super Roundtable event, during which ten tables will simultaneously discuss legal research instruction issues.

The Super Roundtable organizers request topic ideas from members of both ALL-SIS and RIPS. What issues are you facing in teaching that would make good discussion topics?

Please share your ideas directly with Marc Silverman, Interim Director, Barco Law Library at the University of Pittsburgh at



Running a Library Research Assistant Program

March 26, 2014

“[It] takes longer but the results are better.” ~ JFK

This year, I took over management of our library’s Research Assistant Program (RAP) after a successful inaugural year under my colleague’s direction. Having overseen 50 projects and 1,000 hours of assistant work since September, I am exhausted, proud, and still puzzled about how to handle some issues.

The RAP is intended to help faculty – especially those who do not want to hire and manage their own research assistants – with research projects but has also helped the RAs hone their research skills, add to their resumes, and develop productive relationships with both librarians and faculty members. By design, the program runs all projects through a single librarian to ensure quality, responsiveness, and timeliness. The librarian managing the program solicits research needs from the faculty (generally by group email), assigns projects to the research assistants, monitors progress, and reviews, edits, and puts the finishing touches on work product. In addition, the librarian facilitates the relationship between the RA and the faculty member by introducing them in person, arranging and attending meetings to discuss the project, and ensuring that all work is satisfactory.

This deep involvement of the librarian serves a number of purposes. Originally, some librarians wanted to ensure that the RAs represent the library appropriately, but we soon realized that the bigger danger was that the faculty members would ask far too much of the RAs and monopolize their time, all on the library’s budget. The librarian’s role quickly came to include establishing reasonable expectations in terms of time, scope, and the nature of the deliverables. For example, we had to rein in faculty members wanting full-fledged research memos on broad topics, pointing them towards briefly annotated bibliographies instead. Another step was to insist that all communication go through the librarian and not directly to the research assistant. This may seem Orwellian, but it has helped equalize the power differential between faculty and RAs.

This year, we hired a few recent graduates as well as students. One was waiting for a clerkship to start, another was waiting to take the bar, another has four young children, and the part-time, flexible schedule of our RAP was just what she needed. The fact that these graduates are not on campus, along with the growing popularity of the RAP, has caused some morphing in the program. The initial in-person meeting with the faculty member, RA, and librarian has vanished for the most part. This lessens some of the relationship-building that happened last year, but it has made it easier to control expectations and demands. The graduates are also able to put in more hours than the students (though we have to make sure they stay well under 30 hours!), and we have been able to do some larger scale projects.

From the production side, the RAP has been wildly successful. We typically do about 500 hours of work each semester and have accomplished nearly 100 research projects in less than two years with only one complaint as to a missed citation. Nonetheless, the program has had some unintended consequences. First of all, it has been somewhat overwhelming for the managing librarian. My colleague began the program and ran it single-handedly for the first year. I took over this year and, in all honesty, have been swamped with the amount of work it entails. I have gotten better at sharing the work throughout the year (clearly, I have some control issues), but it is still difficult to stay on top of each project, do all the checking/editing that is required, keep records so that we can track hours and work product, monitor the emails, and assign new projects.

Another unintended consequence is the effect on the liaison relationships between other librarians and their “assigned” faculty. The RAP was never intended to replace the librarian liaison assignments, but many faculty members seem to feel more at ease seeking help through the RAP than through their liaison. As a result, most research requests now come through the one librarian managing the RAP, and the other librarians are falling behind as to what “their faculty” are doing. This has caused feelings of “I’m not doing my job” and “I’m losing touch with my faculty.” We have a master list of RAP projects, but it has not been kept up-to-date (did I mention that the workload is overwhelming? I also suspect no one looked at even when it was up-to-date). I have tried to address this by cc’ing liaisons on some emails and asking other librarians if they would like to handle a request, but the results are not entirely satisfactory. Spreading work back out among the librarians undermines the RAP’s tight quality controls, single line of communication, and unified “look & feel.” It also makes progress, hours spent, final work product, and faculty satisfaction much harder to track.

All in all, the RAP has been a fantastic program, and the faculty are thrilled. We still have some internal kinks to iron out, but we will continue this program for the foreseeable future. Even with budget cuts in other areas, the RAP has become a priority for our dollars. We get a lot of bang for our buck both in terms of both faculty productivity and library/librarian value to the school.

If you have a library research assistant program, how does it operate? What successes have you had? What are the challenges?

Research Process In The Databases

March 20, 2014

A recent post by fellow RIPS blogger, Shawn Friend, got me thinking about the importance of process over platform in the legal databases and the current struggle we all face with numerous platforms.

Academic law librarians are starting to regularly encounter students who are “digital natives.” This term is defined as those who were “born during or after the general introduction of digital technologies and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, have a greater understanding of its concepts.”

With that in mind, platform will become increasingly less important overtime. When our students enter law school, they will be much more adept at searching electronic databases, in general.

Instead of getting caught up trying to instruct on the nuts-and-bolts of each database (and there are many with distinct nuances), it is more important to emphasize a research process that works in any database. This teaching strategy also allows the instructor to avoid overwhelming the students with too much information.

At Cooley, we teach a four-step research process:

  • Preliminary Analysis – searching secondary sources for an overview of the topic
  • Codified Law – searching constitutions, codes, court rules, and regulations
  • Binding Precedent – searching case law that the court must follow from a particular jurisdiction
  • Persuasive Precedent – searching case law that the court may follow from other jurisdictions

This research process can be geared toward any database – whether the user must search using pre-search filters or by choosing a particular source from the word wheel. As long as the user can maneuver the database to find relevant secondary sources, he or she will be able to fulfill the first step of the research process and so on.

If the students use the research process to keep their research strategic and organized, they should feel comfortable using any database. And it is important for students to feel comfortable with the databases because they will generally only research in a way that is comfortable to them.

This was observed by Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg among undergraduate students at the University of Washington. The students showed little variation in their research strategies and defaulted to resources like Google and Wikipedia for introductory research, with little regard for efficiency or effectiveness. As Head and Eisenberg observed, the students may be aware of the range of resources needed to carry out their research effectively, but they fall back on strategies as similar and repetitive as possible.

Instead of focusing on the various platforms, we should make the students comfortable with a process that works in any database — a process that will become similar and repetitive to the students and one that they may actually use.

What types of process-oriented teaching/instruction do you use?

For more information see:

Michael B. Eisenberg and Alison J. Head, Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age 2009 Project Information Literacy,

My job is awesome because…

March 17, 2014

Editor’s note: Post written by Jeff Woodmansee

I recently participated in a written interview for a local profile online piece, and it got me thinking that this would serve as great fodder for this week’s blog post – while most of us thoroughly enjoy our careers and are now used to the language of selling our value to others, what is it about your career that you love? Or, to pose it as it was originally posed to me:

Finish this sentence: My job is awesome because . . .

Below is my answer.

Working for UALR Bowen School of Law, and in the field of law librarianship generally, has been a career path that is not only professionally challenging and fulfilling, but provides me with some amazing opportunities to take on a leadership role in helping to shape the future of legal education. Today, law school officials and recent grads across the nation are being forced to adapt to harsh new economic realities in terms of available jobs and making enough money to pay back student loans. At the same time, rapidly changing technology has completely reshaped how courts function, how citizens access justice, and how we prepare today’s students for the legal profession needs of tomorrow. This is certainly true for the new age of law librarians, who will no longer be viewed as book museum managers existing solely to serve in support roles for others, but are increasingly seen as the experts best suited to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to connecting our digital world to the practice of law. Today, we’re teaching courses focused on online research skills, designing websites, giving presentations at attorney training seminars and forums on legal education, marketing our brand through social media, mentoring students – I could go on and on about how exciting it is to be directly involved in tearing down some outdated stereotypes and serving a more active and visible role at our institutions.

At Bowen, I use a fairly informal approach and try to draw on my background in educational psychology and pedagogy to reach students in a way that enables them to make practical connections between tried-and-true research skills and the countless online resources they are now expected to navigate efficiently. For me, it’s all about being authentic and giving them a wide range of skills that will make them more marketable for that summer law firm clerkship or first job after graduation. Outside of the classroom, my librarian colleagues and I have long served on the front line in fulfilling the school’s mission of increasing “access to justice” for our widely underserved area communities by providing basic legal reference and helping them find legal forms and online information to prepare for court. It’s certainly been enriching to work with such dedicated librarians, to constantly be motivated by our many inspiring students, and to be able assist in the important work of so many outstanding law professors – brilliant legal minds and scholars like Professors Michael Flannery, Rob Steinbuch, Lindsey Gustafson, Sarah Howard Jenkins-Hobbs, Theresa Beiner, and Tom Sullivan, just to name a few, in addition to having my own opportunities to pursue legal scholarship on 1st Amendment issues and public information access litigation.

Finding such professional fulfillment while having just enough flexibility to be able to pursue other goals and have an enjoyable home life with my family have made this the perfect career choice. 

What’s your answer? Your job is awesome because…

We RIPS bloggers certainly look forward to your comments!

For more, consult Harvard Law Library’s The Future of Libraries: The Future is Now? Suggested Readings, at

(by Jeff Woodmansee, RIPS Law Librarian Blog Contributor)

2014 RIPS Teach-In Kit Now Available!

March 12, 2014

In case you missed the announcement elsewhere, the much-anticipated 2014 RIPS Teach-In Kit is now available.

The Research Instruction and Patron Services Special Interest Section is proud to announce the release of the 22nd Annual RIPS Teach-In Kit!  Each year, in conjunction with National Library Week, RIPS creates a Teach-In Kit containing fresh materials for use in your institution’s promotional and instructional activities.  We are pleased to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the Teach-In Kit with a variety of new materials including research exercises, PowerPoint presentations, guides, handouts, and games that can be adapted to suit your needs.  Materials cover a wide range of topics such as statutory law, secondary sources, empirical legal research, federal legislative histories, local government law, administrative law, cost-effective legal research, and much more.  Notably, this year’s Kit also has a more tech savvy focus.  We received materials about cloud computing, legal apps, and mobile technology which will surely have great utility in your course or presentation planning.

A big thank you to all of this year’s contributors, we would have no Kit without you!  Thanks also to the Teach-In Kit Committee: Laura Ax-Fultz, Kerry Lohmeier, Shawn Nevers, Gail Partin, Becka Rich, and Anupama Pal.  Special thanks to the RIPS webmaster, Maribel Nash.

Should all legal research instruction look alike?

March 5, 2014

My library recently expanded our advanced legal research course offerings.  As part of the expansion, we are teaching two sections of a traditional advanced legal research class and have been using instructor-librarians, for which this has been their first foray into teaching a for-credit course.  In preparation, we provided a list of the topics to be covered, discussed pedagogical issues, and even allowed for mock classes.  The results have been great.  But one theme has been prevalent in our post-class discussions:  can we provide even more standardization for our traditional advanced legal research classes?

What do I mean by standardization?  Essentially, it would involve each class looking the same.  There would be similar presentations, homework assignments, and in-class exercises.  As we continue the discussion about moving to this model, we are having regular, evolving conversations on the issue and are in the process of creating a shared network folder to act as a repository for the materials from prior legal research classes.  Come to think of it, we may be building our own version of the National Legal Research Teach-In.

So what do we view as some of the benefits and drawbacks of a standardization model for legal research instruction? On the positive side, the library, law school, and students would know that a common theme is being introduced in the classes. Over time, there would be a well-established understanding of exactly what was going to come from these classes. There would be no surprises. Standardization could also cut down on preparation time for the instructor-librarians. Everyone spends a lot of time putting together PowerPoint presentations, homework assignments, and discussion topics for in-class. If the classes were standardized and this type of work was accomplished on the front end, the classes would be ready for anyone to step in and assume the instructor role if needed.

Obviously, there are also negatives to standardizing our instructional efforts. Does everything need to look the same? As I mentioned earlier, we have two instructor-librarians teaching the same class this school year. They have each taken a unique and very interesting approach to teaching the same topics. They have different personalities and styles, and this variety has generated positive responses from the students. Standardization could stifle this individual voice. If we asked each of our classes to look the same, we may not see excellent examples of innovation such as storytelling or the flipped classroom.

With all of this in mind, how does everyone else handle the substance of your legal research classes?  And who out there has found that happy medium of standard subject matter with the individual voice included?


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