Page Fright

For many academic law librarians, scholarly writing is recommended or required for professional advancement. Despite this imperative, I know I’m not alone in finding it difficult to make time for writing at work. There are a thousand other pressing duties, big and small–meetings, projects, and reference requests, not to mention the maelstrom of teaching. Nights and weekends seem better suited for uninterrupted writing, but my extracurricular work time has been devoted to recording and updating videos for my advanced legal research course.

As real as these external demands are, if I’m being honest with myself, I must admit that at least one obstacle to writing comes from within. I frequently struggle with writer’s block. I love the inimitable Anne Lamott’s description of this condition in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

“There are few experiences as depressing as that anxious barren state known as writer’s block, where you sit staring at your blank page like a cadaver, feeling your mind congeal, feeling your talent run down your leg and into your sock….Things feel hopeless, or at least bleak, and you are not imaginative or organized enough to bash your way through to a better view, let alone any interesting conclusion. You know where every idea, quote, and image came from; none of them is fresh.”

Ugh, I feel seen (and not in a good way). I keep a list of possible writing topics on law and librarianship, from the mundane to the strange, some scholarly, some not, all of which I have great fun researching. But do I really have anything new to say about them? Anything at all that would be of interest to others?

The sheer abundance of articles on overcoming writer’s block that I found while researching for this post was comforting. Apparently, I’m in good company. But why do so many of us experience writer’s block, anyway? Some frequently mentioned reasons include perfectionism, negative self-talk, and fear of failure. These causes of writer’s block ring true for me–even when I do manage to get words on the page, I am far more Miss Shields than Ralphie in reviewing my own writing. (Happy holidays, by the way!)

So how can we escape this anxious barren state, uncongeal our minds, and tame our inner Miss Shields? Among the seemingly infinite articles on strategies for beating writer’s block, I found two authored by therapist-writers to be particularly helpful. (Both are available in ProQuest.)

– Eric Maisel, Writer’s Block, 114(4) The Writer 30 (April 2003)(recommends forgiveness, of  yourself and others, and presents six exercises to help you get back on track in your writing).

– Dana Shavin, How to Cure a Case of Writer’s Block, 133(3) The Writer 30 (March 2020)(explains fifteen frequently-encountered problems and offers lots of practical tips for overcoming them). Also available free online (through a lot of clicks) under the title 15 of the Most Common Causes of Writer’s Block—And How to Cure Them.

Here are a few strategies suggested in these and other sources that I am going try out in 2023:

Lower the stakes: It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time around. Also, for the time being, don’t worry about what your eventual reader might think. Just get something, anything, on the page, and focus on editing later.

– Just do it: Don’t wait for an ideal time for uninterrupted writing. Instead, practice putting pen to paper on a regular basis. Lamott recommends one page or 300 words every day. Others advise writing for thirty minutes daily. (Half an hour seems like a lot to me right now. Maybe I’ll start with ten minutes, fully caffeinated, first thing in the morning. Baby steps!)

Separate research and writing: If you, too, get distracted by shiny objects and previously opened tabs, try researching and writing separately. Keep a running list of follow-up questions to research later, rather than detouring back into research as you write.

Enlist a friend: A trusted writing buddy can bring accountability and make the writing process feel less lonely. The RIPS-SIS Scholarship Committee’s Write This Way groups are a great way to get some accountability and meet other librarians interested in writing.

Law librarians who write (a little or a lot), what are your resolutions on writing in the new year? How do you stay productive in your writing? And when you experience writer’s block, what are your tried-and-true methods for getting unstuck?

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Library Internships: Just Say Yes

Experience, in its many guises, pervades all forms of learning; however, its value is frequently not recognized or is even disregarded.  Active engagement is one of the basic tenets of experiential learning: experiential learning undoubtedly involves the ‘whole person’, through thoughts, feelings, and physical activity.[1]

I say yes to every intern opportunity request for three reasons.

Reason One:

The degree gauntlet. You can’t be a law librarian “unless”

A subtle barrier to a career as a law librarian is when students are counseled to avoid law unless they have a law degree.  Even though requiring a law degree in addition to a library degree is necessary only under narrow conditions, and even though most law librarians do not have law degrees.  I delight in proving school counselors wrong one student at a time by saying,” Yes, you can be a law librarian.”    

Reason Two:

You learn best by doing the work

I firmly believe that on-the-job experiences give students an opportunity to master skills and an internship will launch job opportunities for the student. 

Reason Three:

Recruitment

I believe promoting internships at law libraries supports the recruitment of new librarians and we want young librarians to enter this profession.

Therefore, I say yes, always yes.

To the forty-hour internship–yes! To the 120-hour practicum-yes! To the student who requests to spend one day observing the reference desk-yes!  I say yes to the long-distance library student driving from Milwaukee to Madison-apx. 80 miles-to work at the law library and yes to the student who carries a full-time night job at the police department with additional military reserve requirements on weekends and a schedule from hell-yes!  

And it works out every time.

I even said yes during the pandemic lockdown and supervised remotely from my kitchen table while the library was closed.  I had to take on this student.  The original library who had accepted the placement ghosted both the library school and the student. At the time, I didn’t know if I “could” find work for the student, but I knew that I should. As it turned out, faculty research projects work well during emergency pandemic work from home orders.  

What do you do after yes? How to prepare for an intern

  1. Scheduling is key.  Throughout the entire interview process, make sure that you have a formal schedule.  First, schedule an initial interview to discuss interests and to set hours to meet the requirements of the position or coursework.  I ask questions to discover what the student is interested in, and when possible, I recruit librarians who would make good mentors for the expressed interest of the student.  For example, if the student wants practice in repository work, I schedule a project in that area of interest.  If they are interested in electronic librarianship, I reach out to the cataloging department to see if they have a project.  If a student would like to work in acquisitions, I see if there is a project in that department and so on.  The important thing is to find what sparks interest in the student and find opportunities for them to learn.
  2. Be flexible.  Yes, scheduling is key, but you don’t have to marry your schedule.  You can date it.  Also, plan for times when the student may miss a day due to illness or a family or school crisis.  These things happen.  I also always design the schedule around breaks and exam times.  
  3. Teach. Teach legal resources to prevent that deer in headlights feeling a new reference librarian might experience.  I always provide instruction in legal research if the student has never been exposed to it. I give reading assignments and I write assignments, usually those are treasure hunts with statutes, case law, and secondary legal resource locating as the goal.  The assignment is not graded but the student and I do discuss the answers and the how and where of the research. For inspiration, I often use the questions that come to the reference desk. 
  4. Database training.  I assign database training for the interns to familiarize them with Lexis, Westlaw, and other legal databases.
  5. Balance. Schedule a balance of reference work and technical work to expose the student to a variety of projects and give them a well-rounded experience.  This does not have to be complicated.  Updating library guides or creating a tutorial work well as tech work.
  6. Diversify. Do not be the only instructor or supervisor.  Schedule the work hours for the student so that they will be able to work with other librarians on staff.  If you do this, the student will be able to observe & learn different work styles.  
  7. Keep it simple. Let the student keep the schedule.  I do not clock the hours.  That is the intern’s responsibility.  What I do is make sure there are more than enough hours to fill the internship and I monitor the student’s work.
  8. Connections & feedback. Keep in touch with the student’s instructor or supervisor but let them set the tone.  In the past, I have written reports, had informal discussions, and no discussion at all.  
  9. Celebrate. At the end of the internship, celebrate.  Arrange to have the entire reference staff takes the student out for lunch.  This is my favorite part of the internship.  Remember, these are our future colleagues, and they are pleasant company.

Final Thoughts

I assume it comes as no surprise to you that I believe we could do more to encourage library students to intern at a law library. Apprenticing law students is an integral part of student learning, and law school career services offer a variety of practice opportunities. From legal clinics, summer associate programs, to judicial clerkships, opportunities are baked into the three-year degree program.  What library schools offer library students pales when compared to the institutionalized training other professional schools offer students.  Every time I see a program for librarians that includes doing more with internships, I find myself thinking, Yes! Of course we can do more.

And, I guarantee the experience of supervising these students is worthwhile.


[1] Beard, Colin, and John P. Wilson. Chapter 01: Unlocking Powerful Learning – a New Model. Third edition ed. London: Kogan Page Ltd, 2013. ProQuest. Web. 17 Nov. 2022. Page 5.

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How to Stay Productive Over the Holidays

The ideal answer is that you don’t have to be, nor should you be, productive over the holidays. The holidays are the perfect time to relax and enjoy quality time with family and friends. You shouldn’t have to think about work at all–once you set your vacation/automatic away messages, you should be free from thinking or doing any work until it’s time to go back to the office. However, if you (like me) have made some writing or other project commitments, the holidays can also be the perfect opportunity to get caught up on the extra work that so many librarians take on. But while it’s easy to end up over-working or not working at all while on vacation, it’s possible to do a healthy mix of the two. 

  1. Schedule Your Time

    Maintaining a flexible schedule can be one of the best tools to take advantage of the time that you have. Whether you’re visiting your hometown, staying local, or going on vacation somewhere else, schedule what you plan on doing ahead of time. If you need to work on a writing project, you can block off time in the mornings for your writing, and leave the afternoons and evenings free for visiting relatives or other fun holiday activities. You can also view the schedule as a way to gauge whether or not there’s enough time to achieve your plans and avoid over-committing.


  2. Set and Maintain Boundaries

    If you’re living with others or visiting relatives, it may be difficult during the holidays to find time for yourself. You may be obligated to spend more quality time with relatives you haven’t seen in a while, or your partner or children may end up needing more time with you as well. One thing I noticed while I was working at home with my husband during the pandemic was that when one of us was distracted, the other would be in deep focus mode, or vice versa, leading both of us to distract each other at inopportune moments. To set and maintain boundaries during that time, we each had our designated work area, where we would stay when we were focusing. But if we wanted to take a break, we would go to the living room to unwind, and if the others wanted to relax, they could also go to the living room. This helped us non-verbally signal to each other if we were available. Try to set a physical boundary this holiday that signals to others if you’re free. Or if a physical boundary is not available, try to designate a particular time of day as “alone time” so others know that hour or so is your time to do what you want to do.  
  3. Don’t Multitask

    In the same vein, don’t multitask. It’s been shown that multitasking hinders productivity and that most people cannot actually multitask but instead are task-switching, which can lead to less efficient work and focus. So if you’ve decided to set aside an hour to work, dedicate yourself to that single hour, and then don’t think about it for the rest of the day. In the same way, if you’re in vacation mode, try to dedicate yourself to vacation-specific tasks, and avoid answering work emails even if it will just take one second. I’m incredibly guilty of answering work emails or checking my messages compulsively, even when I’m “off the clock.” But my husband often reminds me that I shouldn’t be working when I’m not working, and so while it has taken some time, I do choose to leave my emails until Monday morning. 
     
  4. Rest



    Ultimately, the holidays are meant to be a break away from work. And just like being productive is an important piece of professional life, so is taking care of your well-being by resting during this time. Taking a break or pausing your work life is a healthy way to recuperate your strength and come back feeling refreshed and motivated to work. So this holiday, make sure to take a breather, recharge, and do the things that bring your joy. Because rest is one of the best things you can do to remain productive.
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The “Food Blog” Scroll and Its Impact on Online Legal Research

After transitioning from a written to a “live” format for assignments in my Advanced Legal Research class, I noticed a vaguely familiar pattern of students unintentionally scrolling past relevant information on their screens.

It would happen like this: I’d ask a question, like “is an employer’s failure to accommodate an employee’s disability in an on-the-job training session a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act?”

The student, sharing their screen via Zoom so I could observe, would identify a relevant statute, 42 U.S.C. § 12112. They’d open the statute and, as soon as the page loaded, they’d immediately scroll about halfway down the page, landing somewhere around subsection (c) or (d). The student would read those subsections and either attempt to answer the question using them (which would be incorrect) or decide 42 U.S.C. § 12112 was not correct after all and look elsewhere for an answer.

But the student did find the most relevant statute. They missed the relevant information because they scrolled right past subsections (a) and (b)(5)(A), where they would have read that “no covered entity shall discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability in regard to […] job training,” where discriminating on the basis of disability includes “not making reasonable accommodations” for an otherwise qualified employee unless those accommodations would be an undue hardship on the employer.

After 230 hours of personally observing over 100 students’ screens as they research—about 1/3rd of which echoed the above scrolling habit—I’ve dubbed this distinct pattern the “Food Blog Scroll.”

You know how, when you find a recipe on a food blog, you have to scroll and scroll and scroll past a 20,000-word backstory and love letter to carrot cake before you get to the actual list of ingredients and instructions? You scroll and then pause, scroll and then pause, scanning the page for anything that might signal the recipe is near, and then scroll again after finding no relevant cues. That’s the Food Blog Scroll. It’s instinctual. We’ve been conditioned, Pavlovian-style, to automatically scroll, ignoring everything on the first half of the webpage.

The Food Blog Scroll is just a reincarnation of the decline in deep reading that legal educators have noted for the last decade (and as recently as this past August on the RIPS Blog). Skimming is, by definition, reading superficially. It is useful when the reader needs to know the main points but not develop a deep understanding of the text. It is problematic when the reader needs to critically analyze a text but reads only a few sentences out of an entire page. Students that default to scrolling, skimming, and scanning behaviors risk missing important information by failing to carefully parse the text on their screens.

A benefit of the live assignment is that I can catch quirks like the Food Blog Scroll and correct them. I typically reorient a Food Blog Scroller by gently suggesting they start reading at the top of the page. The student will scroll back up, begin to read, and immediately realize their error. Most of these students do not repeat the mistake in subsequent live assignments. But how do we approach the scroll without devoting hundreds of hours to individual student meetings? I think a three-step strategy could be useful here.

First, make students aware of the Food Blog Scroll and other skimming/scanning reading habits. Students should know that they have these habits and understand why they have them. This awareness, even standing alone, will encourage students to notice their unconscious online tendencies and start to adjust where necessary.

Second, help students hone their skimming and scanning to make it more effective. Much like how it is useless to tell today’s students not to use Google for legal research, it will be useless to tell students not to skim, scan, and scroll. (And much like how failing to teach today’s students how to effectively use Google to find free legal information would be educational malpractice, so too would it be malpractice to fail to recognize the numerous benefits and uses for quickly skimming content).

On this point, I’ve assigned short videos for my class like this one on lateral reading from Crash Course. You might consider an exercise to practice skimming, scanning, and close reading, respectively. Exercises on these three reading strategies online are designed for mostly middle schoolers but can be adapted to legal research easily enough.

Third, make sure students know when to pivot reading strategies from scrolling and skimming into close reading. Skimming might be fine when trying to determine whether a secondary source is relevant enough to use, but students should transition to close reading once they find a relevant source. Scanning for a term of art in a case—or using the “Find” command to find it for you—might be a good starting point, but only if the student reads the case in its entirety afterwards.

Research does not exist without reading, and online research often does not happen without skimming, scanning, and scrolling. If we encourage our students to learn about these habits and help them hone them into specifically employable research strategies, we can help them become even stronger researchers.

Recommended reading—or skimming 😉

Jenae Cohn, Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading (2021).

Kari Mercer Dalton, Their Brains on Google: How Digital Technologies Are Altering the Millennial Generation’s Brain and Impacting Legal Education, 16 SMU Sci. & Tech. L. Rev. 409 (2013).

Carolyn V. Williams, #CriticalReading #WickedProblem, 44 S. Ill. U. L. J. 179 (2020).

Ann Sinsheimer & David J. Herring, Lawyers at Work: A Study of the Reading, Writing, and Communication Practices of Legal Professionals, 21 J. Legal Writing Inst. 63 (2016).

Sam Wineburg & Sarah McGrew, Lateral Reading and the Nature of Expertise: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information, Tchrs. Coll. Rec., Nov. 2019 at 1.

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Writing for the Web

I recently took a Library Juice Academy (LJA) class titled Writing for the Web, which was my last course in the User Experience for Libraries certificate program. Here is a summary of what I learned from that class and other resources about web-based writing in the library context.

Adopt a user-centered approach

Most web-based reading is functional: people visit your website to answer questions or complete tasks. Studies show that people read about 20% of the text on the average page, and they tend to skim and scan rather than read linearly.

Given how people interact with writing on the web, you should think about your audience as users rather than readers. Approach your writing as a tool that supports your users.

Be “clear, concise, and human”

In Writing is Designing, Michael J. Metts and Andy Welfle emphasize three voice principles for web-based writing: “be clear, concise, and human.”[1]

Be clear

This is the most crucial of the three principles. You must have a thorough grasp of the information you are conveying before you can write clearly. Accordingly, the authors admonish writers to “do the hard work to make it simple.”

Be concise

Here, Metts and Welfle advise looking for ways to reduce information to essential themes rather than focusing solely on limiting word count. They take Strunk and White’s classic advice to “omit needless words,” and extend it to “omitting needless information.”

Be human

A conversational tone is appropriate for most web writing. In other words, write like you talk. Refer to users as “you” and your organization as “we.” Don’t be afraid to use contractions and sentence fragments.

Try to answer your users’ questions using language that makes sense to them. As Rebecca Blakiston says in Writing Effectively in Print and on the Web, empathize with your users by asking “What’s in it for them?”[2]

Think carefully about instructions

According to experts, library websites, like websites in general, frequently include too many instructions. Therefore, you should stop and think about whether you need to provide instructions. For instance, people usually don’t need to be told to fill out a form.

If you determine instructions would be helpful in a given situation, use a numbered list. Multilayered lists are fine, but if your list has more than two levels, you might want to rearrange your content.

Start each step of your instructions with an imperative, that is, a verb without “you.” Consider using an if/then construction for instructions that include restrictions. Otherwise, those who don’t read to the end might miss the restrictions.

Given the popularity of touch displays, you might want to use vocabulary that is device-neutral, such as “select” instead of “click.” But no matter what language you choose, keep your terminology consistent.

Finally, put your instructions to the test to see if others can effectively follow them.

Use the inverted pyramid structure

The inverted pyramid is a content-organizing structure from journalism that places the most important information first. It differs from the structure of traditional academic writing, where the discussion often begins with details and moves toward a conclusion.

An inverted pyramid structure helps users understand and follow web-based writing. As Janice Redish says in Letting Go of the Words: “Whatever your essential message is, put it first. Many web users read only a few words of a page – or of a paragraph – before deciding if it is going to be relevant and easy for them to get through. If they think it might not be, they move on.”[3]

In some instances, you might also want to include a summary or a bulleted list of highlights to accentuate the key takeaways.

Layer content and chunk information

Layering information allows you to provide it as needed rather than sharing it all at once. The instructor for my LJA class, who works for the University of Michigan, used her library’s “Who can Borrow” page as an example of layering an overview with links to more specific pages.

Chunking information is the process of breaking it down into manageable pieces. Headings, lists, and tables can be helpful tools for chunking.

A few tips:

  • Limit headings to three levels. Structure your headings so that users can get a feel for the content by scanning them. To make headings more readable, consider using sentence case (capitalizing the first word) rather than title case (capitalizing all significant words).
  • Provide lists if you have three or more items in a series. Lists can be a great way to break up a “wall of text.” Use bulleted lists instead of numbered lists unless you are trying to convey an ordered sequence.
  • Keep tables simple and use them sparingly. Comparisons, numbers, and if-then scenarios are examples of information that can be effectively expressed using tables.

Keep parallel construction

Blakiston calls parallel construction “a simple technique that can make an incredible impact on the quality of your writing.”[4] You should strive to keep a parallel structure for content that users are likely to scan such as headings or lists.

But not everything needs to be completely parallel. For example, the instructor for my LJA course noted that her library opted not to use a parallel construction for the menu items at the top of the library’s webpage.

Conclusion

To learn more, I recommend each of the cited books, all of which informed this post. Rebecca Blakiston was the creator and original instructor for the LJA course on Writing for the Web, and her book is particularly helpful. In addition, you might also want to look at these resources:

Citations:

[1] Michael J. Metts & Andy Welfle, Writing Is Designing: Words and the User Experience 105 (2020).

[2] Rebecca Blakiston, Writing Effectively in Print and on the Web 14 (2017).

[3] Janice Redish, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works 102 (2007).

[4] Blakiston, supra note 2, at 63.

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