Open to the Public?

As a research and instructional librarian at an academic library, my role is pretty clear: teach the students to competently research the law, help faculty with any research tasks they need help with, and, of course, other duties as assigned.  The day to day tasks that take up my time usually, and exclusively, include something within these realms, especially now that the semester has begun.  About 75% of my time today will include preparing for my research class, while the remainder will be spent fulfilling other tasks tartgeted toward the student and faculty body of the law school.

While my insitution is an academic library, it is also a public library, which is something I often forget.  My focus is substantially aimed at the students and law school, that I often lose sight of my obligation to the public.  Point in fact, I will often visit my local public library and think: “the services and programs here are so different than at my library,” only later to realize “wait: we’re both public libraries!”  This is not by design: we have a substantial public patron collection of self-help materials, and the reference staff will always help public patrons who visit.  But the day to day operations are so heavily focused toward the academic focus, that I often forget about the public component.

This mindset is counterproductive and, I believe is harmful to the library’s mission to the public.  I am never rude, nor dismissive of public patrons, but I’m so used to speaking to law students with some understanding of the law, that I often feel condescending to public patrons, and worry how that makes them feel.  Likewise, when explaining the intracacies of statutory and case laws I find it very difficult to do so in a manner different than how I speak to students or faculty, which I worry may not be clear to the patrons.  This is almost certainly anxiety, as my explanations are usually met with thanks, but my apparent discomfort when working with public patrons cannot go by completely unnoticed by them.

I am uncertain whether I can completely ameliorate these concerns, whether real or imagined, but to attack the problem head on I am finally giving public patrons active attention, rather than reactive attention.  I am working on library guides and other promotional materials which will help public patrons navigate the legal resources.  I am always on the lookout for new, free legal resources which I can add to our database library specifically for public patrons.  These efforts have the dual benefit of assisting public patrons and presenting information to incoming 1L students, who are only slightly more sophisiticated than public patrons at understanding legal research.  It is my goal that through these efforts, the public will find value, and also that I will become far more open to the public patrons that seek help in our library.

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Leveraging Confusion in a First-Year Legal Research Course by Ditching the Textbook

Guest blog by Matthew Flyntz, Research Law Librarian for Instructional Services, UC Irvine School of Law

This past summer, as I was developing the one-credit Legal Research Practicum that the librarians teach in the first year here at UC Irvine, I spent a fair amount of time thinking about what (if any) book I wanted to assign. I thought back to my own first-year research and writing class and my advanced legal research class, and it occurred to me that I didn’t actually do the assigned reading in those classes. I was a fairly diligent student, so that was not out of sheer laziness (although that played some part). Rather, the readings didn’t help me learn in those classes. I wanted to do something different in the class I was developing, so I took the plunge and ditched the textbook.

There was a certain amount of freedom that came from this decision. I could teach the research process how I and my colleagues wanted to, without having to conform our teaching to the language of a particular text. But I still wanted students to do something to prepare for each class. As it turned out, I had just read Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, and their lesson that “[t]rying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt” was noodling around in my brain. It occurred to me that the traditional method of legal research instruction (assigning a reading that explains how to do a task, demonstrating the task in class, giving students an opportunity to practice the task, followed by evaluating students on the task) doesn’t take advantage of this lesson. I wanted to develop a way for students to engage with the topics before class in a way that intentionally created confusion, so that they would have that “aha!” moment when the answer became clear in class.

With this in mind, I developed a set of pre-class assignments that asked students to do a range of tasks that they would have no idea how to do. And honestly, these first drafts were bad. They were too challenging, and they didn’t create meaningful confusion. For example, in an early draft of one assignment, I had students pull up a statute on Westlaw or Lexis, and asked, “How would you locate cases that have discussed this statute?” I was hoping they would answer Notes of Decisions, but they would have no way of finding that answer aside from clicking around wildly. A colleague suggested a way of letting students engage with the databases in a way that would create more meaningful confusion. The final question went something like this: “Notes of Decisions provide access to cases that have discussed your statute. Explore the Notes of Decisions tab and try to locate cases that have discussed _______.” They will still be confused, since they’ve never looked at Notes of Decisions before, but they will at least have something to work with. The answer isn’t a flat “I have no idea, and I don’t know why you’re asking me this.”

These assignments are graded purely on a good-faith effort basis. We do not expect students to find the “right” answers, and we told them this during the first class session. As I review their work, I can see how they struggled with the assignment. That’s exactly what we wanted when we designed the assignments – for them to struggle so that when we discussed these topics in class, they would want to see how to resolve their confusion. It seems to be going well so far. Time (and student evaluations) will tell if the students hate these assignments, but from our perspective, they are preparing the students for class in a more meaningful way than readings would. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to using a text in my legal research instruction.

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Teaching Students to “Tech Like a Lawyer”: Imagining a Law Library Makerspace

Makerspace by Giulia Forsythe

by Giulia Forsythe, April 29, 2016. (MakerSpaces – #CanConnectEd showcase talk by @zbpipe)

I recently accepted my first full-time position as a legal reference librarian. So far, I’m off to a great start: I’ve settled into my office, I’ve fielded reference questions both mundane and complex, and I’ve managed to keep my caffeine intake at an appropriate level (if such a measurement exists).

While projects and patrons keep me busy, I still have time to roam the library in order to get to know our collection and the space. I’ve noticed that we have a small lab room tucked away in the stacks, complete with two scanners and multiple desktop computers.

Full disclaimer: One of my favorite hobbies is tinkering with the law and coming up with fun ways to engage with law students. At any given moment, I’m juggling an obscene amount of new ideas. It actually gets quite exhausting. I’m well aware that many of my ideas will remain on the cutting room floor. But librarians are allowed to dream, right? It’s free, after all — no budget required (yet).

I’ve become a bit obsessed with our computer lab because I recently learned about “makerspaces”. According to, they’re a “collaborative work space inside a school, library or separate public/private facility for making, learning, exploring and sharing”. The beautiful thing about makerspaces is the emphasis on technology and tools. The space exists to foster an entrepreneurial spirit. Patrons are encouraged to use their senses – whether it be touch, sight, hearing, etc. – to create something new or innovative in a low pressure or even playful environment.

Law libraries aren’t exactly low pressure or playful, but I believe there’s room for makerspaces in legal education. Possible equipment in law library makerspaces could include bulk scanners for legal digitization projects, video equipment to film workshops or clinical student diaries, or other tools. Even a regular study room with a laptop, whiteboard, and dry erase markers can be transformed into a makerspace, as long as patrons are collaborating and creating something. That “something” could be an idea for a new legal app, legal services clinic, or student pro bono effort.

I would argue that makerspaces are inevitable to produce practice-ready graduates. Thirty-six states have adopted the American Bar Association’s duty of technological competence for lawyers, which requires attorneys to keep up with all the “benefits and risks associated with relevant technology”. If law schools want to help prepare their students for real world legal practice with cutting-edge tech, we should probably start now.

Remember when law school clinics were considered avant-garde? Now, most law schools have multiple clinical education offerings. There may not be any law library makerspaces around at the moment, but I predict there will be many in the future that teach students how to “tech like a lawyer”.

An early proponent of law library makerspaces is Sharon Bradley, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Georgia School of Law. Bradley wrote a Makerspaces LibGuide including a link to a 2012 CALI presentation on setting up a law library makerspace. In researching this article, I called Bradley and we lamented the uphill battle librarians face when trying to implement makerspaces: there’s safety, security, legal and funding hurdles that could warrant a lengthy, separate article.

Law library makerspaces can be a hard sell, for sure. Since some say I’m a dreamer (and thanks to Bradley, I’m not the only one), I’ll spare the gruesome financial details and pretend I have a limitless budget and infinite space. Here’s a sampling of activities I imagine a law library makerspace could host:

  • Tech Workshops: Computers in a law library makerspace could be set up with audio, video, and web editing software, and librarians could help law students learn how to create websites and other digital materials. Potential software could include Audacity (audio), Final Cut Pro (video), and/or Arduino (coding).
  • GIS Software Training: Geographic Information Systems (GIS) gather, manage, and analyze data using the science of spatial location. It’s being used more and more in environmental, property, criminal, and even public interest law. Introducing GIS software to law students in a library may give them a head start on launching new innovations and visualizing key legal data in maps, patterns, and really cool 3D graphics.
  • Makerspace Library: These would be books or databases typically not found in a law library collection that could still inspire law students. Potential cross-disciplinary topics could include information literacy, career services, coding, digital photography, cultural magazines, fine arts portfolios, computer magazines, and more.
  • Publishing House: Law library makerspaces could house free or paid software that helps patrons learn visual storytelling techniques that could be useful in legal practice, such as the production of cover letters, resumes, web portfolios, brochures, webinars, one-pagers, infographics, toolkits, newsletters, and much more.
  • Business Incubator: Many law students have professional goals of opening their own solo practice or starting a new nonprofit. A law school makerspace could provide them with a scaled-down incubator to begin creating their new business, including free space to work.
  • Self-Help Center: Academic law libraries that allow public patrons could market self-help centers as makerspaces to empower pro se litigants and encourage them to learn hands-on approaches to legal issues.

It’s completely possible that law schools are already hosting these services outside of designated “makerspaces,” but I love the idea of creating a central location that encourages patrons to tinker with the status quo of legal systems and services. A makerspace could provide a place for law students to dissect the legal system and shift their perspectives from frustration and confusion to adaptation and innovation. As law librarians, it would provide us with another way to increase legal information literacy and directly engage with our patrons.


Posted in Information Literacy, Legal Technology, Library Displays, Inspiration and Design Ideas, Makerspaces, Marketing, Outreach, Patron Services, student services, Teaching (general) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Untapped resources

Law firms, and law schools, rarely lack for resources.  A law firm may not have everything that a law school has, but we generally have enough, and, frequently, more than enough, to meet the needs of our attorneys.  Use of the resources is another issue, and another blog post.  But most of our resources are for performing legal research.   It’s true that the big publishers include not legal resources in their subscriptions – news, company information, directories, for example.    But what about those requests that require more information than our regular services provide?

I see daily posts on various listservs with requests for scientific articles, as well as posts seeking recommendations of sources (I’ve posted those myself).  Frequently we can get lucky and another firm (or law school) will have some esoteric resource that can provide what we need.  Or someone else will have had a similar question, and can point us in the right direction.

Many of my requests are for scientific information, and that’s fairly easy to find – at least when it comes to scientific articles.  Most/all of the journals and scientific publishers have a website and provide their articles – sometimes for free, sometimes for a charge.    Proquest (or as I knew when I was starting in libraries, Dialog) is similar to Lexis/Westlaw but is geared to business, science, medicine, and research libraries.

But an untapped, and frequently unknown, trove of information resides in almost every city.  The public library.  Our public library provides access to a multitude of resources aimed at the general user, whether they’re in business, a student, a scientist, or a teacher.  And it’s all available at no charge if you have a library card.  And most of it is available without having to go to the library itself.  With a library card, I can remotely log into research databases, find journal articles, even ask a librarian for help with a research issue.  But wait, there’s more….   You can also borrow books.

Why would you use the library databases?  For business research.  Our public library offers access to Factiva, for up to date business news.   For older news, they have historical newspaper archives, Barrons’s, and Mergent reports.  For tracking down individuals or businesses, I can access ReferenceUSA, in case my services come up empty. For scientific research – which, in my case, is generally locating articles cited by an expert or in the patent literature – I can find full-text of many articles at no charge (which is preferable to paying $20-40 per article).

And the books!  My firm does quite a bit of First Amendment litigation, and my attorneys cite to a wide variety of materials in their briefs.  I had an attorney once quote from “Look Homeward Angel” in his brief, and needed to book to make sure that his quote was correct.  It’s not a title that I have on my shelves, but I was able to walk a few blocks and bring back a copy fairly quickly.   If the library doesn’t own the book, they’ll even handle the interlibrary loan and borrow the book.   That can take time, but it’s better than not being able to obtain the material at all.  I’ve even purchased books at the library book sale that I needed for my firm’s collection – where else can you get a pretty recent copy of the PDR for $2?

Most of us haven’t used a public library for research since we were in high school, but the public library can provide a great deal of information to help law librarians.  We’re expert in research/reference in our field, but the public librarians are true generalists and can suggest sources that we would never think of.  So, the next time you have a question and don’t have the resource in your collection, check your local public library.


Posted in Patron Services, Reference Services, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This Moment in Time

Photo by author of actual bed on this, the day before the first day of school

Ah, back to school…A time of crisper winds, fresh faced students, and not a worry in the world. A magical time of year.

 Ha. More like endless to-do lists, end of summer project panic, and finally accepting the end of #hotgirlsummer. If you’re a parent, you also have to contend with teacher conferences, school supply lists, and open houses.  And let’s not forget the students.  Whether entering law school for the first time, of bravely facing another year, the students are under a tremendous amount of stress with deadlines, interviews, AND ALL THE READING.  And let’s sprinkle a few existential reflections on everyone.

Yes, this is the autumn I’m most familiar with.  And I love it. I thrive on the excitement of new beginnings, of preparing for the challenges of a new year. The day before the first day of school carries more anticipation and promise than any flashy New Year’s Eve.

But I’m reminded time and again in my career of the importance of mindfulness.  Of taking a minute to simply exist in your space and appreciating it for its simplicity and glory, at this moment.

Mindfulness can be found everywhere.  There are books, apps, professional organizations, articles, and, of course, blog posts touting the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. But so often, it becomes just another “thing” that you feel you should be doing.  Whether our stress comes from professional burnout, errand paralysis, or simply the inevitable changing of the seasons, we all experience moments where we feel overwhelmed with all we must do. It’s intergenerational, afflicts all socioeconomic classes, and the entire political spectrum.  We all have moments of emotional chaos.  Meditation and mindfulness can help us cope with how we respond to the world around us.  These concepts needn’t be reduced to faddish buzzwords or involve overly complex scheduling and tasks.

I’m a single mom, which means free time is a distant memory or a highly treasured commodity. Do I want to spend what little time I have on a yoga mat pondering the universe? Not really. Not even a little if I’m being honest. 

But I do try to spend a few minutes in mindful appreciation each day.  I’m fortunate to work on a beautiful campus, so I like to spend a minute or two reflecting on the view from the top of the hill before entering the law building for another day. I also traded square space for location when I chose housing, so I try to spend a moment or two staring out the window on my afternoon commute.  Right now, the trees and flora are a rich, succulent green.  Soon, they’ll don the vibrant colors of fall, and then nothing at all.  And I will have to find another small piece of gratitude in my every day. But I know I will find it, as long as I am looking.  So, for now, I urge you to find your moment of peace in the chaos.  Maybe it will be in the scent of a crisp wind or the smile of a fresh faced student, after all, back to school is a magical time of year.

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To all of my new(er) colleagues:

To all of my new(er) Colleagues:

Did you attend the D.C. AALL annual meeting as a first-timer or relative newbie? Were you lost r did you have questions? Perhaps you even heard of this thing called CONELL but don’t know what that is either. Or maybe AALL 2020 in New Orleans will be your first-ever annual meeting and you’re nervous or don’t know what to expect. Good news, CONELL helps with that!


As the immediate past chair for CONELL—that’s the Conference for Newer Law Librarians—I want to spread the news early and widely what this pre-conference day is all about. In short, CONELL is a day for the first-time attendee or newer law librarian to get acquainted with the Association and each other. More so, memories are made and friendships are formed. If you want to know a little more about what CONELL is exactly and if it’s right for you in 2020, read on…

Photo by Hannah Rodrigo on Unsplash

First, know that CONELL can change up from year to year and I’m excited to see what this year’s committee members decide to do in New Orleans (no pressure, friends!). Although marked as a one-day workshop on the Saturday of the annual meeting, the real fun begins the night before. Tip #1: Arrive to the host city in time for dinner the night before! CONELL kicks off with “Dutch-treat dinners” which are small group dinners made up of five or so other CONELL attendees and one or two hosts. Hosts are typically AALL executive board members, CONELL committees, or other fun and engaging leaders in the profession! The Dutch-treat dinners are a fun way to begin making friends and to explore the host city. They’re a do-not-miss part of AALL!

The next day, when CONELL officially begins, attendees check-in and mingle over a light breakfast and coffee. Then, the sessions begin. Typically, the AALL executive board stops by to introduce themselves and break the ice. The following sessions highlight involvement opportunities with AALL and getting the most out of the conference weekend. Two big highlights of CONELL include the Marketplace and Speed Networking. The marketplace is an opportunity to visit with numerous SISs, caucuses, and other AALL groups. It’s casual and attendees can come and go from groups’ tables as they please. Speed Networking is similar, but an opportunity to meet fellow attendees who are similarly situated in their careers. For the introverts reading this, let me just say that so many attendees end up saying this is their favorite session! Here’s an example:

“I loved the speed networking. I cannot stress enough how nice it was to be able to greet people at a conference where I knew almost no one.”


Finally, the pièce de résistance: every CONELL ends with a fun tour of the host city! While D.C. certainly had plenty to offer, I’ll be the first to say that the New Orleans is sure to be just as good! Ok, I’m biased because I used to live there. But truly, it’s a special place, and I know it will be a great meeting. And don’t worry, most tours are usually by air-conditioned bus with opportunities for on-and-off site visits or photos.

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

So, who’s excited for CONELL next summer? If you’re on the fence or have more questions, view more information here, or reach out to the new CONELL committee chair, Sarah, or other committee folks! Registration won’t be open until 2020, but I recommend having it on your radar now.

Hope to see you in New Orleans!

Posted in Annual meeting resources, Career, Issues in Law Librarianship | Tagged , | Leave a comment

First Day Adventures

Last week, I taught my first class of the year. My first class as a professor. A new mission unlocked! A career milestone complete! It was both exciting and nerve-racking, and I get to relive it all over again once-a-week, every other week, for the next fifteen weeks.

Luckily, I’m certain no other teaching experience will ever be like my first. Competitive by nature, I approached my first class like I do most things in life – I had to win.

kick chess piece standing

Photo by George Becker on

That first class felt almost like combat. For weeks prior, I studied the PowerPoints, notes, lesson plans and exercises of my predecessors. I armed myself with over encompassing content, pre-planned questions, and engaging slides. I had the online course advantage, and I made sure to prepare my battle station with a shield of printed notes and books for easy reference during class. I was more than ready to take on the horde!

Then I bombed. I forgot to plug in the headphones to my USB, and for the first two minutes of class I could not hear or be heard. Mortifying, but not an absolute defeat. I forged on.

My co-professor, a seven-year veteran, began the lesson with a solid introduction and explanation of course expectations. When tagged in, I struck with a thorough introduction to natural language and Boolean searching – a lecture expertly peppered with spontaneous questions and references to this week’s readings to make sure our students were on the up-and-up.

I did run a bit over before the break. Seemingly, our students took no notice, and we were able to move on without issue.  We returned to class, and I issued the next challenge- “Does anyone have any questions about what we just went over?”

A hand went up. Challenge accepted.

man with fireworks

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

The response I gave to the student was probably not my best work. I answered as best I understood the question and flung the class over to my co-professor for the final leg. Thankfully, my co-professor was able to clearly and completely respond to the student – using the dialogue box and typing examples to articulate his meaning. It was absolute genius!

World-weary after my own performance, I placed my mic on mute and accepted my defeat. It was over. I had lost. Going in, I felt like a grand-master on the subject. A behemoth of terms and connectors.  And yet, like Goliath, I was felled by a single stone of student inquiry.

Ashamed, I vowed to be better. Wiser. Know and see all. Anticipate every question and be ready with an answer, a witty quip, and a glittering smile in my voice that will shine through my microphone to warm the hearts of my distance students within their very homes.

A few minutes after the class ended, my co-professor and other colleagues that were listening in to the lesson came to congratulate me on a successful first class. Obviously, they were just trying to be polite. I was there. I witnessed first-hand the disaster. I was sure to read about it in our student polls.

And would you believe what these students said? They really enjoyed our first class, and can apparently do with a little less break time. Also, we would probably need to re-explain our grading scheme.

I realize . . . I can sometimes be a bit dramatic.

close up photo of sunflower

Photo by Brett Sayles on

Class is not a combat zone. Our students are prepared to learn. I just need to be prepared to teach. There are several resources available to help me to do so (special thanks to Alyson Drake for  7 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Learning Legal Research – lifesaving guidance for new professors!). I may not know everything – I’m still a human being – but, I can be confident and engaging. Tomorrow, my students will, at the very least, get an exciting presentation and a few fun-filled exercises all about secondary sources.

At the time I am drafting this post, my next class will not start for another 24 hrs. I am preparing to engage my class anew. In anticipation, I have already begun deep breathing to steady my nerves. The deep breathing is new. I clearly need to calm down.

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