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The AALL Spectrum® Blog is published by the American Association of Law Libraries. Submissions from AALL members and other members of the legal community are highly encouraged. Opinions and editorial views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of AALL. AALL does not assume any responsibility for statements advanced by contributors. Previously, the AALL Spectrum Blog was located at aallspectrum.wordpress.com.
2/19/2015 3:19:12 PM

Teaching Legal Research with Simple or Comparative Concepts

Law students are inundated with complex legal concepts the moment they enter law school. So when we teach legal research, it’s best to avoid distracting them with the substantive aspect of legal terms and concepts, and keep them focused on the research process. We can do this by avoiding complex or specialized terms and topics (for example, res ipsa loquitur), and instead provide easy to understand, memorable, real-life examples (for example, Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress), or examples drawn from multidisciplinary fields. These examples can help to clarify the meaning of the legal concept or term by analogy. Below are some suggestions of how this would work.


Compare and contrast a similar, multidisciplinary item or term

Compare, for example, legal dictionaries and encyclopedias to their “regular” (multidisciplinary) counterparts. Pointing out the differences highlights the unique aspect of the legal resource.


  • Example: Resource: Legal Encyclopedia

    • Similarity: Brief, alphabetical coverage of different topics (like a “real” encyclopedia”)

    • Difference: Legal version not only focuses exclusively on legal concepts, but adds annotations to primary and secondary law as further reading on the concept.

  • Example: Term: “Annotations”

    • Compare Annotations to footnotes:

      • They cite the source they quote, so they help you locate that source and verify its authority.

      • They provide further reading on that particular topic.

  • Example: Terms: “Primary v. secondary sources”

    We usually explain this concept by saying that primary sources contain the law, and secondary sources help you to understand the law and provide footnotes and annotations to the primary source they cite. Illustrate this with multidisciplinary examples:

  • Secondary source: A book written by 20th century author that analyzes texts of 18th century diaries to explain or interpret the mindset of 18th century people, with footnotes that cite the diaries. The book may paraphrase the text from the diaries to save space or illustrate the author’s interpretation.

  • Primary Source: A print of original diaries by 18th century people. The diaries contain the actual, original text by 18th century people, which is open to interpretation and analysis by modern authors.

This example also helps to illustrate to students why it’s best to check the language of the primary (original) source, like a statute or case law. In secondary sources, the author may paraphrase the language to serve their purpose or analysis. So to read the most accurate version of the language, you need to go to the source, which is the language of the statute, case, or 18th century diary.


Compare and contrast similar legal items

Example: how are treatises different from “regular” books about legal topics?

  • A treatise on Copyright: will focus on explaining and summarizing the law in an organized manner, so you get a sense of the area of the law as a whole. Subtopics related to each other will be organized under the over-arching topic.

  • A “regular” book about copyright: will often deal with a specialized topic (like Art and Copyright). It may discuss the law in relation to or in context of multidisciplinary topics (like social, political or historical issues). Its focus may be the author’s arguments or agenda. It’s not as concerned with introducing and summarizing the law in an easy to understand, organized manner, although it may do so in context of its topic.


Ask: What is the research purpose of a source?

Example: Show what the student will have to do without the secondary source

Sometimes, it’s useful to focus on the purpose of your source with an illustrative question, and show how it provides a useful editorial shortcut.


In this example, you can ask the students:

  • Would you prefer to:

    1. Read the whole 200+ pages of the Clean Water Act; OR

    2.  Read a 5-page summary of the Act’s content and effect in a legal treatise on environmental law?

  • “Would you prefer to:

    1. Read through a multiplicity of cases to find how judges define a term; OR,

    2. Use a dictionary or a Words and Phrases set to find how the term is commonly used or defined by courts?


Use Simple Concepts

As stated above, avoid abstract, complex legal concepts to illustrate your research example, since you want the students to focus on the research process.




Colorful, memorable terms

Trade Dress

Memorable situations &  concepts

·       Dog Bite

·       Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Everyday Situations applying to many people

Law of…

·       Tenant security deposits

·       TV or computer warranties

Distinct, easily visualized Institutions, issues, etc.

Law of…

·       Hospitals

·       Divorce


Even if the legal topic itself may be complex (for example, the law regulating hospitals), you really don’t need to move beyond where you find the law itself, so the topic may still answer the simplicity standards. The goal is for students to easily determine what key terms they should be using for their research, rather than having them focus on the fact pattern or legal concept.


Hadas Livnat

Reference Librarian

UC Hastings Law Library

San Francisco, CA 94102



Posted By Hadas Livnat at 2/19/2015 3:19:12 PM  0 Comments
2/17/2015 1:57:18 PM

A Different View: Teaching Basic Legal Research to Library Students

This semester I have the pleasure of teaching Basic Legal Research to several graduate level Masters of Library and Information Science students in a mixed mode course offered at St. John’s University.  In taking up this course, however, I have found that teaching basic legal research to library students presents a whole different set of challenges, issues, and problems (as opposed to teaching legal research to law students) that are not necessarily addressed by the law library community.  Some of the challenges involved are endemic to education in the 21st century as a whole: things like, teaching methodologies; how to integrate technology in the classroom; how to keep students engaged; how to get students to participate in online classes; drafting effective assessments; and meeting course objectives and goals.  However, other challenges are distinct to this type of class.  In this case, the most difficult obstacle being--How do you structure a class when you have some students with no experience and others with an outright expertise in the law?  This large discrepancy in students’ background levels is quite common in today’s economy and occurs when you have a class where some students are barred attorneys with J.D.’s , some have had experience as paralegals or with state agencies, while yet others have no experience with the law whatsoever.  

Almost a month into the semester, I have no real answers to this challenge only a few small insights. First, interestingly enough, there is little in the way of materials and guidance that is specifically designed for legal research instruction for library students, even though 22 American Library Association accredited schools offer law library concentrations.  Second, because basic legal research at the library school level appears to be more about process, research materials for law students are helpful but need to consistently be altered in order to incorporate information science methodologies and strategies.  Third, tiered lesson plans seem to work best where introductory level students are given a basic foundation but extra information, tips and/or tricks are included (but not tested) for advanced students in order to keep them interested and engaged. Last, basic-level students should be given access to multiple reference materials for supplementary or recommended readings in order to help make things like definitions, citation, and basic legal concepts more accessible.

Taryn L. Rucinski
Branch Librarian, Southern District of New York Libraries
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Posted By Taryn Rucinski at 2/17/2015 1:57:18 PM  0 Comments
2/12/2015 6:00:00 PM

Members Making a Difference

As someone relatively new to the profession, I am often amazed by the charitable work done by librarians and our professional organizations. Last year the Social Responsibility Special Interest Section raised $480 at the AALL Annual Meeting to support the Solar Heating Project. This initiative was created to help “Native American families who are struggling to pay their heating bills and replace[] ‘dirty’ electricity created from coal-fired power plants with clean solar energy.” In addition, the SR-SIS collected 378 books and $595 for the “Transitions Program of San Antonio Independent School District, which serves homeless students, students in foster care, and at-risk youth.” Finally, the SR-SIS donated toiletries collected from members staying in hotels at the Annual Meeting for the San Antonio’s Family Violence Prevention Services.

I began to wonder what other projects were out there going unnoticed. Were AALL chapters, caucuses, and special interest sections engaging in charitable activities that we all should be aware of? After some inquiry, I found a tradition of service that does the AALL membership proud. Several regional sections including the Chicago Association of Law Libraries, Law Librarians of New England, and New Jersey Law Librarians Association even have committees devoted specifically to community service work. I’d like to thank everyone who provided details about their efforts, and share some of the work these organizations are doing. Here are some of the charitable activities I discovered:

The Black Caucus also has a very active community service subcommittee. This past year they organized a fundraiser for San Antonio Youth during the AALL annual conference. BCAALL invited an SA Youth representative to attend the annual banquet, where donations were formally presented to the organization. Members donated hundreds of dollars both on the night of the event and online. They also collected in kind donations of school supplies, backpacks, markers, pencils, pencil sharpeners, crayons, pens, highlighters, notebooks, folders, tablets, glue, and a host of other items.

Several chapters are finding opportunities to combine charity with member engagement, generating creative ways to give back to their communities. The Chicago Association of Law Libraries organized a team to participate in "Run for Their Lives," a 5K race to benefit PAWS. They hope to organize another team to participate in a similar event this summer. In the Mid-America Association of Law Libraries 1Ls do a service project each year during Orientation as a way to get to know each other and do something positive in their community. This year, MAALL is also launching a new Books to Action Program, where members read the same book on a social issue, and then perform a service project related to the book’s theme. The WestPac Local Arrangements Committee focused on environmental issues deciding to go “green” at their 2014 conference by making environmentally-friendly purchasing decisions and mobilizing their membership to recycle.

Several projects will offer resources and training to public librarians on legal research subjects. The Southern California Association of Law Libraries Public Access to Legal Information Committee will provide sessions on legal research for non-law librarians in 2015, partnering with the City of Temecula Public Library. The Law Librarians of New England plan to launch a web portal in 201 5 to help connect public librarians with support by providing research tutorials, best practices and resources. The LLNE service committee will create new content to be featured on this new digital platform.

There are also a few organizations that work with youth to encourage an interest in the legal profession. The Southern California Association of Law Libraries created an Inner City Youth Internship Program, providing “employment opportunities to qualified inner city high school students in private, public and academic libraries as well as other related institutions.” In March the Dallas Association of Law Librarians will volunteer at the Texas High School Mock Trial Competition to support local high school students with an interest in law. Additionally, the Colorado Association of Law Libraries raises funds each year for a scholarship offered to help a library student pursuing their degree.

We should be proud of the work librarians and our professional groups are doing to give back to the community. Why not try a new project this year? Have a project completed in 2014 or coming up in 2015 that deserves a mention? Share it in the comments section!

© AJ Blechner, 2015. Reference/Outreach Librarian, University of Miami Law Library, Coral Gables, Florida. ablechner@law.miami.edu.

Posted By AJ Blechner at 2/12/2015 6:00:00 PM  0 Comments