Reference Librarians, Institutional Memory, & Bluebook Common Law

by Beau Steenken

A significant portion of the reference work my colleagues and I do involves assisting students on our two journals, the Kentucky Law Journal and the Kentucky Journal of Equine, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Law. While some of the work we do with journals is helping students with research for writing their required notes, the majority of the time we spend assisting journal students dealing with the pre-production of their issues; the process they refer to as “source and cite.”

When the students refer to “source and cite,” they really mean two separate actions: gathering digital copies of all the sources cited in the article the students are editing, and correcting the citations to those sources, some of which the author of the article will have  invariably mangled.521348_4955391803550_446507204_n Obviously, one of these activities– gathering the sources– necessarily involves using library resources (e.g. books, database subscriptions) and services (e.g. inter-library loan, reference assistance in identifying precisely what an author is attempting to cite), while the other– interpreting and applying the Bluebook— on its face could be conducted without using the library. In fact, when I deliver a mandatory presentation at journal orientation every year, I focus solely on the “source” step, other than giving the new journal students a little pep talk about how they’re capable of “editorial decisions” when it comes to bluebooking. Pragmatically, however, my colleagues and I find ourselves assisting with the both steps of the source and cite process.

There are two reasons why I think we sometimes end up engaging in librarian mission-creep, and they are both related to the nature of journals as institutions. First, because law journals are run entirely by non-first-year students, their institutional memories tend to stretch back to only the prior academic year. Thus, while we librarians may remember in great detail the article on privacy from 18 months ago that cited a large amount of E.U. material, new journal students presented with an article using similar sources will have no recollection of the past efforts. In this case, it will naturally be more efficient for the journal students to ask us to help find the materials than it would be to reinvent the wheel trying to research on their own. From there, it’s quite easy for the law student in question to then ask something along the lines of “do you remember how they cited this last time?”

The second factor in our mission creep is the culture of fear that seems to permeate journals. Journal students are often unsatisfied with being told that the Bluebook does not expressly cover their particular source and that they will have to extrapolate and/or make up a citation that makes sense.  They seem to live in constant fear of receiving strikes from their editors, and I gather that the accumulation of  three strikes ushers in some sort of unspeakably dire consequence. Thus, journal students often want confirmation from trusted librarians that they are citing things in good form.

While I used to view walking students through Bluebook rules as an opportunity for extra LRW instruction in an informal setting, I have come to appreciate the method my library director uses for answering citation questions. He has the students look up past instances of how their journal cited a similar source. If their particular journal has not cited the source before, he suggests finding it in a different journal. In essence, this is Bluebook common law.

When presented with a conflict in which it is possible to apply a vaguely worded rule in more than one plausible way, the student can look at past decisions and follow them. If the goal is achieving consistency through time stretching longer than one’s institutional memory , there are certainly worse models to follow than stare decisis. The best part of this approach is that it still affords me the opportunity for extra LRW instruction, just at a more metaphorical level. Bluebook rules mirror statutes; earlier citations mirror judicial decisions and can be either mandatory (if from the same journal) or persuasive (if from a different journal); earlier citations can be distinguished factually (e.g. print vs. online editions of a source); and students may even have to settle circuit splits (if different issues of the same journal cite a single type of source differently). Really, the possibilities for educational allegory are endless!

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