Just Do…Reference

First, a disclaimer: I am a child of the Eighties. I owned a pair of parachute pants (1st grade), watched The Challenger explode on live t.v. from my classroom (2nd grade), and—due to a misfortunate coincidence of nomenclature—suffered through the “Bo Knows” ad campaign featuring Bos Jackson and Didley (5th & 6th grades). I bring this up because, to me, two other marketing campaigns of my youth symbolize the tension that is the trickiest part of providing reference service in a law library.

The two campaigns are Nike’s “Just Do It” ads and Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug slogan “Just Say No.” First of all, it strikes me as funny that two of the three slogans from my youth that still reverberate around my head (I still can’t escape the “Bo Knows” thing as more than one of my colleagues share long memories and penchants for bons mots) feature such contradictory messages. On the one hand, “Just Do It” tells you to not worry about sacrifices but to just do what needs to be done. On the other hand, “Just Say No” insists that some things are dangerous, not worth the benefit, and should be flatly refused. Second, what strikes me as even more funny is how each of these sentiments clearly applies to providing legal reference.

At U.K., my colleagues and I provide reference services to faculty, students, and the public. Overall, we pride ourselves on being as helpful as humanly possible when answering reference requests (a pride that is hardly unique within the profession). Consequently, our attitude veers towards “Just Do It” for things as simple as scanning a historic statute to fax to a small-town law office to things as complicated as spending hours looking through historical archives to track down the origin of a single citation for a faculty member. However, as a reference librarian, the tricky part arises when “Just Doing It” veers close to the blurry line between providing research support and practicing law. Actions that could amount to the practice of law are where “Just Say No” comes into the picture.

Of course, what actually constitutes the practice of law may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in Kentucky the definition (found in Kentucky Supreme Court Rule 3.020) includes “any service rendered involving legal knowledge.” A rather broad definition like this really limits what a reference librarian can do to assist patrons, particularly public pro se patrons. Other parts of the definition allow an interpretation in which it does not apply to hypothetical, academic-type work, so our faculty and students typically receive unimpeded reference service. I, like many of my colleagues in the profession, became a law reference librarian in part because I like helping people. Therefore, I find it very difficult telling patrons that I can’t help them any further than showing them a source and explaining how the index works, even when I know the exact terms they should be looking up. However, suggesting search terms would be applying legal knowledge which would cross over into practicing law. Thus, I find myself consciously reminding myself to “Just Say No,” even when my knee-jerk inclination is to “Just Do It.”

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One Response to Just Do…Reference

  1. Pingback: What is a reporter? | RIPS Law Librarian Blog

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