Working with non-law students from your university

For the last few months, the unique reference situation has been the norm. It started with some unexpected questions and has continued with an uptick in requests by non-law students from across our greater campus. While it is always our intent to help as much as possible, these students bring their own set of challenges and questions.

Where are they getting the referral to us?

At Emory Law, we have a research consultation request form on our website that we market to our law students. Although many of our student requests for assistance still come via the more traditional methods (in person at the reference desk or emailing a familiar librarian), we do see 5 – 7 requests via the consultation request form from law students per month. Recently, we have noticed an increase in requests-via-form from students across campus. While the form is not exactly buried on our website, the student would still have to search to find it.

We have learned from discussions with other librarians on campus that they are familiar with our system and are referring students to  the form for research questions. Some of these questions are clearly law related, while others only touch the edges of legal information. It is flattering to know we have a good reputation across campus and that we are known as the best resource for legal research questions.  But is there another issue?  Could we do more to help other librarians better handle these questions?  Our law librarians are quite adept at interdisciplinary research; could we help our colleagues become more comfortable with the basics of legal research?

How much do they know about what we are providing?

I am sure most of you have gotten the request for access to one of the password-protected databases from a non-law student and found a way to politely explain our licensing agreements, with the next paragraph in the discussion providing information on access to alternatives including the lite versions of Westlaw and Lexis. But even then, how much do non-law students know about what they are researching? A recurring request for us comes from graduate students needing federal court docket information for empirical research projects. After explaining the nuances of what is available, I often try to talk about what they will find within the dockets such as the myriad of motions, orders and other filings. But I can’t spend forever with them. Even with access to what they need, is there going to be real comprehension of what they find?

How much time can you allocate to them?

From the example above, you can imagine that these encounters can be time consuming. Non-law students are not our primary patrons,  but we still want to provide quality guidance. I have found that providing the basics and leaving the conversation open for additional email communication works well. It gets the student started, gives them a chance to work with the resources and materials, and then lets them know that they won’t be on their own if questions arise.

As we see interdisciplinary research become more common, these requests from non-law students will continue to increase. The students bring fascinating questions but also present their own logistical issues. We have our best practices for working with them – how does your library help your non-law student patrons?

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This entry was posted in Information Literacy, Issues in Law Librarianship, Patron Services, Reference Services, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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