Marketing the Library Catalog as a Useful Tool

by Erik Adams

When I’m not doing research instruction or providing patron services, I maintain my library’s web pages on our intranet and write software. Recently I have been updating our library catalog, which has forced me to think about the changing role of the catalog at our firm and how it fits in with our mission. Which, not coincidentally, is research instruction and other patron services. This means the catalog should have an important role, but as things stand it is falling short.


CC License

I probably should do a survey of my patrons, though I suspect that if I asked my attorneys what they thought of the catalog the most common response would be “The library has a catalog?” This is partially the fault of poor placement on the firm’s intranet but also reveals a misperception of the role of the catalog: as the firm has shifted away from books to electronic resources, there is a perception that the catalog is less useful. The catalog is seen only as a tool for finding books, as opposed to a tool for finding sources of information. If you need to find a web page, you use Google.

This perception is unintentionally reinforced in our attorney training. Back in the days of the card catalog, an important part of teaching people how to do research would include an introduction to the card catalog and any local quirks: do we have separate main entry and subject catalogs, or is everything interfiled? Does the public have access to the shelf list? And so on. These were important parts of research instruction. But now when we orient new attorneys at our firm, showing them the catalog seems pointless when the collection is so small and so many volumes have a big orange sticker on them that says “SUPPLEMENTATION DISCONTINUED.”

(To be fair, many of those out of date books also have a green sticker that says “Also available online,” but that doesn’t catch the eye.)

Physical collections at many law firms are dramatically shrinking. At my firm and others, the number of works we have available online solidly outnumbers the number of physical volumes. Yet one of the most frequent reference requests we see is “is this title available online?” The attorney could answer the question themselves via the catalog, but it didn’t even occur to them. Though, they could be forgiven if they tried and failed; I have heard from friends at other firms and universities that their catalog did not handle online resources very well. In our library, the system supports adding a link with a short text description, but the link clearly plays second fiddle to title, author, publisher, and physical description. And, depending on how you run the search and review the results, you might not even see the link.

I’ve also heard complaints about online catalogs being hard to use. One university librarian I know told me that their catalog’s “basic search” and “advanced search” functions have different, non-overlapping options: there are search filters on the “basic search” screen that are not available on the “advanced search” screen, which meant that a single research session would bounce back and forth between the two. Even if the patron did think to use the catalog to find a website, they might not be able to find what they were looking for.

At the end of the day, one of the biggest problems we face is marketing. Even if the interface issues were resolved and the ability to present online resources were perfect, attorneys will think of the catalog as an automated version of something that used to be on 3 x 5 cards in little wooden drawers. The attorneys know that the physical collection is shrinking and reason by extension that the library catalog isn’t useful. If the effort we put into maintaining an accurate catalog is going to be worth it, the catalog must be marketed just like any other research tool.

Posted in Legal Research Instruction, Library Collections, Marketing | Tagged | Leave a comment

2017 AALL Minority Leadership Development Award

The 2017 Minority Leadership Development Award (MLDA) application process is closing soon! Applications are due by Feb. 1, 2017. Applications will be eligible for review for two consecutive annual award cycles. The MLDA is an important step to foster minority leaders for the future and provide minority law librarians to leadership opportunities within the AALL. The winner of this award will receive prepaid travel, lodging, and registration for the 2017 AALL Annual Meeting; an experienced AALL leader to serve as the recipient’s mentor for at least one year; and the opportunity to serve on an AALL committee.

If you have any questions about the application, contact Jootaek (Juice) Lee at or Casandra M. Laskowski at

Take advantage of this fantastic opportunity and apply today!

Posted in AALL Annoucements | Leave a comment

Teaching During Transition

Presidential sealby Ashley Ahlbrand

With a new administration poised to take the helm this month, we can expect many changes in the federal government in the coming months. This can make teaching legal research, especially any lectures focused on government documents, a challenge; but it is also an opportunity. For this month’s post, I thought I would highlight some of the topics and resources likely to arise during the transition.

Website Transitions – When a new administration takes over, you can typically expect a complete overhaul of The resources you are used to accessing, like presidential actions in the Briefing Room, may move or be reorganized. Indeed, the type of content made available by the current administration may change in the next. Emphasizing the importance of knowing what to look for, and not simply becoming complacent about where you have always found it, might be a good skill to focus on this semester – rather like emphasizing platform independence between Lexis and Westlaw.

You might also note the likelihood that the current administration’s White House website will be archived by NARA, which you can demonstrate by showing the websites of former administrations, including Clinton and Bush. On the topic of archived web pages, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine is always a good tool for students to learn about – after all, is not the only website likely to change.

Researching People – With a new administration comes new leadership, including a new Cabinet. As names of potential and likely appointees are floated through the media, teaching students about tools for vetting people can serve as a timely teachable moment. I often teach these tools in the context of preparing for a job interview, but big news events such as this provide another approach to teaching the usefulness of these tools. I emphasize Bloomberg Law’s people search; while the amount of content available varies by individual, the feature I like here is the related news, showing the latest media coverage the individual has received. Public records are another appropriate topic here; you might discuss the information you can find on your Secretary of State’s website or even at local records offices. I discuss the Lexis Public Records tool (with the caveat that the students should only use this tool for educational purposes, not personal). This is also a good topic for discussing the merits and ethical limitations of social media research. Finally, as appointees are brought forward, you can transition into discussing congressional resources and documents related to events such as Senate confirmation hearings.

Monitoring the Regulatory and Legislative Agendas – There has already been much talk about the changes that are likely to occur with our federal laws and regulations with the new administration and the new Congress. There are many legislative and administrative tracking tools that you might bring to your students’ attention. offers several handy features in this area, including links to monitor current legislative activities, to read the latest in the Congressional Register, or to see what bills have been recently introduced or most viewed of late. and allow to you see the latest regulations from all federal departments and agencies and to participate in the regulatory process by submitting comments on proposed rules. This is also a good time to emphasize the wealth of information available on agency websites, as they are likely to be the first to announce their own changes as the administration turns over.

Vetting Reliable Information – There has been a lot of attention brought to fake news stories lately, which provides a good vehicle for emphasizing the importance of information literacy and the ability to effectively evaluate resources. You might discuss factors such as the authoritativeness of the website or resource’s author, how up to date the content is, and strategies for verifying the veracity of claims made. For tracking fake news, you could introduce your students to Hoaxy, a new tool from researchers at Indiana University designed to help you study the spread of fake news stories.

These are just a few suggested topics, and many more are certain to present themselves as the transition unfolds. I hope you’ll find ways to turn the events of the presidential transition into teachable moments for your students, and I hope you’ll share them with us if you do! Students tend to digest knowledge best when they can relate it to real-world scenarios; thus, capitalizing on these events that the students will be invested in already can be an excellent means to an end.

Posted in elections, Legal Research Instruction | Tagged | Leave a comment

Show Us Your Best! Call for Contributions for the 25th RIPS National Legal Research Teach-In

call for contributions visualAs the year draws to a close, the RIPS Teach-In is just warming up! The RIPS Teach-In Kit Committee is currently accepting submissions for the 2017 Teach-In Kit. The Teach-In Kit is a resource where law librarians can share their materials and ideas to help improve legal research instruction, and 2017 marks the production of our 25th Kit. As such, we’d like to make this year’s Kit extra special. We are asking you to submit your “Best of.” Whether that’s your best handout, best lecture, best assignment, or best library program, we hope you’ll share your “best” with your colleagues from across the country! Good resources never lose their value, so even if your “best” is something you’ve submitted to a previous year’s Kit, we invite you to update it and submit it again!

Prior contributions have included course syllabi, lesson plans, research guides, assignments, lecture notes, handouts, assessments, PowerPoint slides, tutorials, and games. Examples of past submissions can be found in kits from previous years.

The Committee has a lot of ideas in the works for this year, but we can’t make it happen without your help! The deadline for contributions is Friday, February 17, 2017. We thank you in advance for your contributions to this great resource!

Posted in RIPS Teach-In Kit | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Third Time’s the Charm

by Tig Wartluft

Previously I’ve written about the process of creating a legal research course and the changes we made to that course after we taught it for the first time. Now that the semester has come to an end, I’m starting to review and assess the second rendition of the course, and I’m already making a list of tweaks and adjustments for the third time around. On the whole, I’m happy to say that the changes we made after our first time definitely improved the course. I feel that this second run through was a more targeted and polished course. Additionally, I feel that the changes we will make before teaching the course for a third time will be significantly smaller than the last set of changes.

Sitting here looking at the start of my list of suggested modifications, I’m noticing that they fall into three categories: (1) topics where we need to start at a more basic level; (2) topics where we need to either be more precise using our terminology or where we will need to define our terminology more precisely; and (3) places where I want to alter my explanation of a topic for better understanding. I will provide some examples of the first two, the third essentially addresses my own personal idiosyncrasies and presentation examples.

1. Starting at a More Basic Level

Determining what basic step of knowledge to begin teaching a topic is a moving target. Each group of students will have a different set of educational backgrounds, so I’m not sure that we can definitively determine the proper starting step without boring the students who know the basic information already. Yet, we have to be sure not to lose those students who don’t already have a basic understanding of a topic.


Foundation Steps

For example, how much information do you assume students already know about the three branches of government? I had one student tell me that the introduction I give on the structure of government, and their related primary sources, was wasted time because everyone in the class had taken a year of American history in high school. Yet other students in the same section told me they enjoyed the Schoolhouse Rock “I’m Just a Bill” video. Perhaps most distressing, to me at least, was the fact that many of my students had never heard of Schoolhouse Rock! They were too young! It is painful that we get older every year and the incoming class remains the same age!

Another example is teaching what an index is and what a table of contents is. Last year I assumed that all the students would have a basic working knowledge of the parts of a book and how to use those finding aids. I was wrong. So this year I made sure to demonstrate the indexes for various sources on Westlaw and the Table of Contents on Lexis. The demonstrations helped but led to unintended conclusions. Next year, I now know, I have to expressly address the fact that those items are not database specific, but rather exist in many sources of all formats. I thought I mentioned that, but apparently not explicitly enough. I am finding out that many students have never used these finding aids and that they don’t know, inherently, how best to utilize them. Thus, I have to make sure to start one step earlier in the process, to explain these at a more basic conceptual level than I initially thought I would.

2. Defining Terminology More Precisely

While I was very careful of the term ‘authority’ and of using that term to mean two separate concepts, I missed several other terms that we as attorneys, or myself personally, used in more than one way. For authority, I made certain to explain both usages: primary and secondary authority, and binding and persuasive authority. And made certain to thereafter speak about primary and secondary sources and binding and persuasive precedent. I was much more careful about these terms and definitions the second time through the course and I saw an increased level of understanding because of my specificity.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed several other terms that I now need to use with more precision next year. Two examples: rule and issue. Early in the semester I spoke about identifying the legal rule in a case and in determining the legal issue(s) implicated by a hypothetical. Our legal writing faculty were using the same terms so the students were picking up these concepts quickly as two of their courses were both addressing the . . ., well . . , the issue. At some point during the term, I realized the students were getting fuzzier on what an issue statement should look like and what information it should include. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to realize a potential reason for the increased confusion. While the writing faculty were still instructing the students on how write an issue statement, I had morphed my use of ‘issue’ to not solely refer to the legal issue they were researching, but was also using ‘issue’ to mean a factual issue that had to be addressed in their summaries. Looking back, this was understandably confusing to the students, but I hadn’t noticed until their assignment answers to a particular repeated question, which had been correct earlier in the term when they responded with a legal issue, started to, incorrectly, include factual issues as well.

Additionally, once I broached the topic of regulations and executive agencies I realized, too late, that I had been asking the students to provide summaries of what they found while researching using the traditional IRAC style which asked them to state the rule… of law. Additionally, our writing faculty had been working with the students to pull out the rule(s) from cases. Now I was calling regulations, rules. And to further complicate things, I was talking about the rulemaking process. Needless to say, there were some very interesting summaries of regulatory research problems.

20/20 Hindsight

Looking at the students’ final research projects, I can see those areas of the course that I explained well, those areas that I need to explain more fully in the future, and those OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAareas where I inadvertently caused confusion through imprecise language. It’s a good reminder about exactly how new and different 1L year really is from undergraduate. Some of last year’s students didn’t realize until their summer internships how much our research course helped them. I can only hope that this year’s students will look back at this course this summer and remember some of what we taught, and if we’re really lucky, our students will recognize and appreciate that they learned something from us. If even one student is helped in their career because of this course, the whole process of planning, implementing, and refining this course will have been worth every minute.

Posted in Information Literacy, Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general) | Tagged | Leave a comment

Is Access to Lexis, Westlaw, and BloombergLaw Feasible?

by Dean Duane Strojny

Let’s face it. The cost of the current big three legal research databases is staggering. Over the years, both Lexis and Westlaw tend to have multi-year price increases followed by multi-year price holds. This lulls directors in thinking the prices are not going up, but they are. Since most of us are near the middle of a budget year, it’s a good time to reassess our services. Law firms have known for quite a few years that the cost of having access to both services is not feasible.


Free Image from Pixabay

Along comes BloombergLaw and an even higher pricing structure. I am guessing that since they provide access to BNA titles, which are significantly higher than any other publishers print titles, they feel justified in a higher pricing structure? My son often reminds me when push comes to shove,  you get what you pay for. I am not so sure that is the case yet with the legal databases, yet. At any rate, law schools are compelled to subscribe to all three services as well as a myriad of others. In flush budget times, that may have been acceptable. While we might subscribe to the law firm and government entity concept that in this “Googlized” research world only one service will suffice for most of your patrons, the reality is different. The argument is that an academic institution should offer the full complement of resources because it exposes students to every possible situation. Here are a number of options that may cause you to consider the cost of maintaining three very expensive subscriptions.

  1. Look at your use statistics.  All companies can supply some type of statistics.  How many students actually create accounts in all three services? What about faculty use?
  2. Review what you are teaching. If you are not covering all the big three in every legal bibliographic session the library provides, maybe you should. Awareness of materials creates demand and use.
  3. Teach your faculty. This is easier said than done, but direct outreach to faculty can serve as a stimulus for student use. As in #2 above, awareness of materials creates demand and use. Faculty often appreciate alerts that simplify their research and serves as a current awareness tool for them.
  4. Cancel one subscription and see if anyone notices. Select the least used service and see what happens. The likelihood that someone complains might just be that they do not know what else is available to them. Proprietary titles could be a different issue, but again refer back to statistics (see #1).

There is no doubt that this approach might rattle more that a few legal research database representatives. While elimination of some databases might seem to limit patron access to material, doesn’t it give librarians more leverage in teaching about alternative resources? I began this post mentioning cost and that is a good way to end it. Our job as librarians is multi-faceted. We need to keep in mind costs as part of our job with providing access to legal information. Our reference work may only be enhanced with more creative thinking about access while also acknowledging the need for financial stewardship. Certainly as participants in a larger business world, our vendors can understand this point of view.

For additional information on this topic see this White Paper on Commoditization of Legal Research Databases. At $2,750, it really may not be worth the cost. Two pages of the report are available for free. Additionally, a 2015 blog post discusses the continued improvement of free or low-fee options available to practicing attorneys and the general public. Also take a look at the Franklin County Law Library’s research guide on the topic that compares general costs.

Posted in Legal Research, Legal Technology, Patron Services, Technology | Tagged | Leave a comment

Information Literacy Outside the Walls of the Library

by Paul Gatz

The news is fake, truth is dead, and facts aren’t even a “thing” anymore. A blunt initial assessment, but perhaps it can be fine-tuned. Yes, it can be difficult to distinguish between news items from reputable sources and those from less-than-reputable sources. And surely the correspondence of a given proposition to an actual state of affairs is far less persuasive than a rhetorical appeal to emotions, biases, and prejudices. Finally, those in power have often found denying the existence of objective reality to be a useful tool for delegitimizing their opponents’ criticism. In many ways, none of this is new.

What is new is that the institutions traditionally responsible for conveying reliable, authoritative, and accurate information – journalists, publishers, and librarians – no longer play the same dominant role that they once did. In ways undoubtedly familiar to the readers of this blog, the explosion of Web technology, and social media in particular, has flattened and broadened the information ecosystem on which public discourse relies. Anyone can publish anything, and everyone can read it, share it, or like it. Every man or woman is his or her own media curator – within the bounds of the almighty algorithm of course.

This is not to suggest that certain monolithic social media companies should take on the responsibility of telling their users what is and is not fake news; others can make those arguments more forcefully. Rather, the online bubbles and echo chambers that amplify the signal of fake news stories, misinformation, and propaganda are a human problem, not a technological one, and they likewise require a human solution. Librarians comprise one set of humans that is well situated to play a major role in addressing this problem, particularly through providing information literacy education.

In the past several weeks, many have commented on the fact that an information literacy skills deficit is at the heart of the “fake news” problem. In particular, my former colleague (and editor of this blog), Jamie J. Baker, recently highlighted an interview on The Verge with Professor Nicole A. Cooke of the University of Illinois diagnosing information overload as part of the problem and reviewing the efforts, sadly limited by resource crunches, of school and public librarians to teach information literacy.

Teaching information literacy at all levels, in all libraries, is undoubtedly a key to ensuring that citizens can critically evaluate resources and distinguish between good information and bad. I am likely not alone in reviewing my syllabus and plans for my next semester ALR class to make sure that my students will be afforded opportunities to deepen and further develop their information literacy skills.


Art installation at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Columbus, Ohio.

However, simply providing instruction to the patrons of our own institutions seems inadequate when the library, as an institution, no longer occupies the central role it once did in the information environment. In an earlier post, I characterized the work of a public services librarian as a nexus between the user and the information system represented by the library. The skills that enable us to provide those sorts of services are transferable to other information systems. And what is the Web, if not a larger, less controlled, more fragmented information system?

Perhaps we need to take information literacy instruction outside the walls of our libraries, to the places where public discourse, for good or ill, occurs: social media. I don’t mean to suggest that we should all turn our social media accounts into full-time fact-checking enterprises, or that you should comment with unsolicited information literacy instruction on every post that’s asking for it (although if this is how you wish to spend your time, by all means, please do).

As Professor Cooke notes in The Verge interview,

For those who are concerned, those in the media, we have to prioritize this as something that’s really important. This is a headline right now given recent events, but will it still be a headline past January?

It is incumbent upon librarians to keep this conversation about information literacy going, and I do not mean “librarians” in a broad sense, as a profession, or even in the context of an individual’s career. I mean individually, within the context of our own personal social networks. One of the consequences of the flattening of the information ecosystem is that we are all part of “the media” now; we should be concerned and we should speak up.

A good start may be to simply share articles and other content that discuss the importance of information literacy and critically evaluating what you read online before you share it, like it, or retweet it. People in my own networks have posted helpful things, including a list of False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources compiled by Professor Melissa Zimdars (recently profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education); a LibGuide on Fake News from the Campus Library at Indiana University East; and a slightly-too-clever article from the Huffington Post with the completely serious headline, Bernie Sanders Could Replace President Trump With Little-Known Loophole.

But it’s important to do more than share or retweet existing content. You should share your own thoughts on this subject. The great value of social media is that it provides a platform for all users to express themselves, and your own voice will make a greater impact on the people in your network than anything you merely endorse, quote, or otherwise react to. So share your own thoughts and words on what information literacy is, how to practice it, and why it’s important. Get the friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances in your social network to start thinking and talking about it, and don’t let the conversation stop.

Posted in Current Events, Information Literacy, Social Media & Web 2.0 | Tagged , , | Leave a comment