What is a reporter?

This semester’s postings started with a great discussion on reference services. We all get interesting questions from a variety of patrons, and I am sure that every one of us has our favorite reference questions to share. But what happens when you get a question which gets at the core of legal research and it comes from an unexpected source?

Much like any academic law library, the early part of the semester is busy for our reference librarians as we are frequently working with the journal members during their cite-checking endeavors. One librarian received the question posed in the title – what is a reporter? This came from a second year student who had done well enough in the first year to make one of our competitive journals. Furthermore, our legal writing professors do a quality job incorporating the basics of legal research into the mandatory 1L curriculum. With all this in mind, the librarian provided an answer but was quite concerned that this concept had slipped through the cracks with the student. It also got me thinking about the bigger picture. What can we do when some of the basic legal research skills have gone unlearned? In my library, as I can imagine happens at many others, we use three approaches.

1. Address it one-on-one.

This is the easiest and immediate option.  It deals with the point and the student will be able to quickly move on to the next project. The problem is if one student has missed an issue, it is very likely that other students have the same questions.

2. Re-emphasize in classes.

Our library is fortunate to be very involved in the upper level curriculum. For the current academic year, we are teaching six for-credit classes covering both general and specialized legal research. Our librarians do spend time reviewing the fundamentals as we have come to realize the need to reinforce what was taught during the first year legal research and writing classes. It may take away from more advanced topics, but we feel it is too important not to highlight.

3. Create or direct to online tutorials.

A student may have a question yet not come seeking answers or be enrolled in a legal research class. We can still provide alternatives. The lessons of CALI are great for these basic questions (and I regularly get the 3:00 am email requesting the authorization code). Plus, many libraries have their own research guides covering the essentials. As we switch to LibGuides for our research guides, we are strengthening the background information on the introductory guides and have seen a high number of hits in a short period of time.

While writing this, I keep thinking that I am being too basic with my comments. However, we may not always think about reinforcing the fundamentals of legal research with upper level students. It is important to remember that some of the basics will always slip past the ever taxed law student. We have many opportunities to assist and should be as clever as possible in getting the information out there.  “What is a reporter?” – how would you deal with the question?

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