I just moved across the country, over 2000 miles, with some cats and all our household belongings. Actually, I came with the cats while my husband finished packing and came later with all of our things, which is the point of this story.
Not being a librarian, my husband did not do the packing and labeling the way I would have done it. For example, each box was not devoted to a single room. The first couple boxes were like Christmas in March: “Ooh, I forgot we had this.” The next few were frustrating: “Why are the CDs next to my jewelry box?” And then I began to see it – the pattern, the pattern of searching and finding that becomes so ingrained in a librarian that we don’t see it until someone points it out. In this case, it was my best friend, who was helping me unpack (and make tacos), who asked “How did you know the cheese grater would be in with the dictionary?”
The answer is instructive in terms of helping patrons find things. As librarians, we get used to the process, to what is next to each other thing. In any new research tool, we have those same moments that I had unpacking. First comes the excitement: “Ooh, I forgot their legislative histories were so detailed.” Then, a bit of a learning curve: “Why can’t I find committee reports?” And then we have that moment, that instant when the index and TOC make sense and we know how the resource works. We understand why certain things are next to each other, just like I knew that the cheese grater would be with the dictionary –since the dictionary stand was just outside the kitchen in our old house. I could think like my husband even though he did not organize everything the way I would have.
This is the skill that we need to instill in our patrons: the ability not to think like a lawyer necessarily, but to think like the legal writer or editor or indexer or web page designer. Skilled researchers have the ability to shift from where they think the relevant information is or should be to where the writer would have put the information or where the editor would have given the signposts to find the most pertinent items. Usually, key components of this approach involves planning research and being skeptical.
All legal research is the organization of chaotic bits of data into a coherent whole, but it is important for us to remember that not everyone knows how that chaos is laid out. Facing that challenge ourselves is a good way to connect with that inexperience, and we should investigate completely new resources on a regular basis so that we have to explore the unknown and think about why a book or database is laid out as it is. Make sure to enjoy the challenge of navigating as our patrons do every day, without the experience and know-how that we have. The joy of finding the perfect case, or the cheese grater, in an unexpected but, in the end, understandable place is a moment of research Zen to treasure.