The Limit Does Not Exist

By Christine Anne George

Monday was Mean Girls Day (the date was chosen due to a particular scene in the movie). Among the many things Mean Girls has gifted us is a particular line that, from time to time, applies to reference work. Spoiler alert for those who have managed to dodge the incessant airings on TV. Towards the end of the movie, Cady is participating in a Mathletes competition and has to pull herself together to solve an equation. The solution comes to her like a lightning bolt. The limit does not exist! So too must the reference librarian occasionally break the news to their patron—the source does not exist. Only unlike the movie, for the reference librarian, the challenge doesn’t end there.

In my experience, there have been two main reasons to break that awful news to a researcher, or worse, an 11th hour cite checker. The first is that the source actually no longer exists due to limitations of our digital world, namely link rot. The second tends to be a mis-cite or perhaps a Bluebook faux pas on the part of the author. Both, though, provide opportunities to show the many and varied skills of reference librarians.

Based on a previous post on this blog and a presentation at the 2016 Cool Tools Café at AALL last summer, I have high hopes that law librarians are raising awareness about link rot and doing our best to, if not eradicate it, then to at least make it far less common. Until that day comes, though, there is the Wayback Machine. A link might not be really most sincerely dead. If one is lucky, it might have been preserved and available through the Internet Archive. Putting a dead link in the Wayback Machine and then pulling up the elusive document, much to the wonder of the researcher, is pretty much the closest I’ve felt like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Sometimes there is no magic that can conjure up a source because it really doesn’t exist…at least not as it’s cited. Authors might misattribute a quote or flip a year or do any number of things that would make a source impossible to find. For example, earlier this week, a research assistant reached out to me to ask about Person X quoting Person Y saying Z. No amount of searching could turn up quote Z in any of Person Y’s writings. We concluded that the quote did not exist and that Person X paraphrased Person Y while claiming Z was a direct quote.

Forgive the cliché ending, but unlike Cady where discovering that the limit doesn’t exist leads to a letterman jacket, trip to prom, general rightness with the world, and happily ever after, finding out that the source doesn’t exist is only the start for reference librarians. The revelation that the source doesn’t exist means that it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

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