Recently, I have had the opportunity to do a couple of legal research / law library introduction sessions for some undergraduate classes. Undergraduates are an interesting user group. They don’t have the Wexis access of law students, and they don’t have the needs of attorneys or pro se patrons.
There is work to do with the professor before the class. Find out where they are in their research project. Just as importantly, find out how much they have learned about the structure of the legal system. For instance, take the book Essentials of Business Law, a recent undergraduate-level text. That is a whole lot to cover in a semester, and the chapter introducing the law is a mere nineteen pages. But the course professor may have dedicated three hours to introducing the legal system. Also, see what the class policy on citation is. (Good luck if the professor wants you to teach the Bluebook in depth!)
Have the students chosen their topics? This comes up for law students, too. Students with topics have a little more motivation to use the session productively. And speaking of using the session productively, online resources are really the way to go for this. That has not stopped me from passing books around in my classes with undergraduates, even though I have yet to get back an evaluation that reflected value in doing so.
I have tried to use tools they can access easily. The primary one at my institution is Lexis-Nexis Academic. It has a legal section, with searchable case law and law review articles. I would not recommend it to someone who had access to Lexis for Law Schools, but non-law school students can use it to find relevant legal material for a research paper.
There is also Google Scholar. It is probably the fastest way to pull up a big case on a topic. I feel like it is good to let students know it is thereso that they will know about it for the future after they have graduated and no longer have access to LexisNexis Academic. The Supreme Court website is useful if a class is focused on really current events. There is also audio from the court, which could pique a student’s interest. If you go further into audio, don’t forget the Oyez project!
What of the library catalog?If your catalog is integrated across all of the parts of your university, they may already know how to use it. Even then, there are a fewlegalsources that can be difficult to pull out. “Reporters” may not an intuitive name for where courts’ opinions are published. Another sourceI like to show undergrads that does not often pop up when searching in the catalog by topical keyword is American Jurisprudence. It is well organized by topic, has a thorough index, and provides many paths to further research, all written at a level that undergraduates without a legal background can mostly understand.
Undergraduate instruction sessions can be hard. These students come in with different motivations and different needs than law students. For some, an undergraduate class with a legal focus is the first step to a career in law. For others, it could just be a class that didn’t meet at 8 in the morning. In either case, I hope that they will finish their course with a basic understanding of legal research.