As law libraries transition from print collections to digital collections, the role of the academic law librarian will continue to evolve. This evolution will take us from being the curators of print collections to the curators and navigators of electronic collections.
Some libraries are making this transition faster than others, and a total transition is still many years away. As Jerry Dupont of the Law Library Microform Consortium stated in a May 2013 ABA Journal article, “’When people say everything’s online they’re woefully uninformed.’ Dupont, founder of the LLMC, a nonprofit law library cooperative, estimates that of the 2 million unique volumes contained in America’s law libraries, only about 15 percent are available in digital form. That figure includes access via proprietary, commercial services like Westlaw and LexisNexis.” Hollee Schwartz Temple, Are digitization and budget cuts compromising history?, ABA Journal (May 2013).
As librarians evolve in our digital role, it will be more important than ever for librarians to teach context and evaluation of electronic resources. After all, today’s law students are the “Google generation.” This generation of researchers was taught from a young age to use keyword searching and let the algorithms do the heavy lifting.
Teaching Database Algorithms
Today’s students may rely too heavily on the results without really understanding how those results are generated. For example, with a current natural language search, the database algorithms may look for synonyms for a particular keyword. But the synonym may be replacing a term of art for which a synonym should not be used, and this “helpful” function of the database actually becomes a hindrance offering irrelevant results.
For this reason, it is important for librarians to teach how the algorithms work. Of course the big challenge, here, is that the algorithms are a well-kept secret. But most librarians are constantly searching and finding clues about why certain results are generated. The least we can do is discuss these clues with our students in an effort to give them the tools necessary to be informed researchers.
Teaching Research Nuances
Not only do we need to teach how the algorithms work, it is also important that we point out some of the other nuances that can make searching confusing. For example, while researching recently, I noticed that WestlawNext does not update the Notes of Decision for a particular statute after the statute has been amended. This means that there may be cases attached to an amended statute that interpret the older language of the pre-amended statute. This was confirmed by Westlaw through an email from one of its Research Attorneys: “Generally, our policy is not to remove Notes of Decisions from statutes, even if the case has negative history or may discuss language that is no longer specifically within the statute. Sometimes these cases can be useful for providing information on the prior language or previous interpretations, and may give insight into why or how the statute changed as a result.”
I also noticed that older cases link to the current version of a statute. For example, one of my faculty was interested in an older version of a statute from the late 1980’s. I found cases from the late 80’s interpreting the older statute with hyperlinks to the statute. But the hyperlinks to the statute linked to the current version of the statute, not the older, pre-amended version.
Instead, I had to use the Historical Statutes Annotated to find the older version of the statute that was interpreted in the cases. Keep in mind that the most of the Historical Statutes Annotated on WestlawNext go back to 1989. If you need a pre-1989 statute, you will likely have to rely on HeinOnline, print, or microfiche.
I agree with the Westlaw Research Attorney that it can be helpful to have the older cases attached to a statute to see how a statute’s interpretation has changed over time. And it is also helpful for a case to include hyperlinks to the statutes cited in the case. But it’s important for researchers to understand West’s editorial process and also understand WestlawNext’s functionality to be able to successfully evaluate and contextualize the information. It is important to know, for example, that you may have to go from a case that interprets an older version of a statute to the Historical Statutes Annotated to find the correct version of that statute.
These are just a few examples of the types of gaps that librarians must bridge for law students to be able to successfully contextualize and evaluate information for effective legal research. I suspect that as students continue to be sophisticated technology users, our role will transform much more toward bridging these types of knowledge-in-action gaps.