AALL Spectrum Blog

  • Bookmark and Share

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.

The AALL Spectrum blog is no longer published. Previous posts are archived on this page.
2/26/2015 10:39:20 AM

Why Talk About Race in the Library

Deane Family portrait circa 1994

“The deleterious effects of racial microaggressions…are cloaked within an invisible White veil. In this manner, perpetrators are allowed to enjoy the benefits that accrue to them because of their skin color. They resist the realization that Whiteness, White supremacy, and White privilege are three interlocking forces that disguise covert forms of racism. It allows many Whites to continue their oppressive and harmful ways while maintaining their collective advantage and individual innocence.” (Microaggressions in Everyday Life , Dr. Derald Wing Sue). 

Why talk about race?

The short answer to why we need to be able to have meaningful discussions about race is that America has a long history of racial discrimination and it continues to impact all realms of society, including universities and law libraries, both as places of learning and as places of employment.

After arriving in Tennessee and noticing the state of race relations, I found myself in a position where I was alone in a new city with no tools to deal with the racial climate. I could no longer ignore the reality of contemporary overt acts of racism after being personally targeted by vandals. This lone hate-filled act triggered my awareness of racism and implicit bias and drove me to intensely research the history of racism in the South and the social science theories related to racism in elite institutions in America.

These academic articles gave me a vocabulary to describe the everyday racism that I was experiencing. You could say that I became black, the scholarly term for this is nigrescence and people usually undergo this transformational experience in their teen years. I was well overdue.

I grew up in the majority in my home country of Trinidad and Tobago. As a creole person, I had privilege in that society. Before moving here from California I had not really developed any kind of identity specifically tied to my African heritage. Culturally, we Trinidadians believe (although we sometimes fall short of this in practice) that it is morally wrong to segregate based on race or to hang ones identity on a racial identity tied to countries that we have never seen. We are Trinis not African Trinidadians or Indian Trinidadians, although we have no problem celebrating our race related traditions, like Divali, Eid-ul-Fitr and Shouter Baptist Day. These are celebrations of our diversity, not a dehumanization of the other based on race. 

Deane with Grandparents

No one in my mixed creole family had ever made a big deal about the fact that we had some African ancestors. We were culturally Trinidadian and focusing on any specific nationality from our heritage seemed forced and artificial. I never spent much time thinking about it until I moved to Nashville even though most of the American communities that I participated in were predominantly white, because I had never felt viewed as “a black” (as opposed to being viewed as a black person). That is to say, I had never before felt dehumanized because of any of my physical features that might reflect African phenotypic traits. So being black in America is new for me and now I spend a lot of time thinking about it. 

Initially, my emotional response to the overt act of racism was fear, anxiety, depression and nigh uncontrollable anger. I also became extremely sensitive to racial microaggressions stemming from “unconscious racial bias against blacks”, also referred to as implicit bias. Moreover, because of the plausible deniability factor, and because of my lack of a support system of people who knew me and also knew what it is like to be black in the South, I started to think that I was going crazy, because I would notice and point out problematic microaggressions and many of my well-meaning white peers just did not get it. Meanwhile, my awareness of racial microaggressions in my daily life began to have the paradigmatic impact on me. My health was deteriorating rapidly and significantly and I began to notice the poor health of other women of color on campus.

I needed a way to convert the emotional pain and that I was experiencing in response to the implicit bias that has been proven to cause race-based traumatic stress (also called racial battle fatigue) into something positive. Not knowing how else to cope, I continued to research racial microaggressions in the legal industry and in the university environment in the U.S.. Before Hidden Dores, I encountered I too am Harvard, Presumed Incompetent and myriad articles on racism in the law school environment and in the legal system and at least one about overt racism in libraries. Drawing on my extensive academic background in cultural anthropology, I processed everything that I read through the lens of a tired and heart-broken social scientist. That is to say, I was not entirely objective, but I was trying. The immediate emotional anguish continued and drove me to seek opportunities for social justice activism. I hoped that anti-racist activism would heal trauma from racism and I pursued it with the zeal of the newly converted.

On the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington, I attended a commemoration event at the Benton Chapel on Vanderbilt campus. The Chapel was almost empty, but at this event, I met some like minded people and I began participating in diversity programming, including three panel discussions and two Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Days (2014 & 2015). Throughout all of this, I was still repressing my own rage which, in spite of my measured tones and carefully curated anti-racist rhetoric, continued to undermine the effectiveness of the message that I was trying to deliver. Friends and mentors (including job search guru Leslie Ayres), had been encouraging me to develop a mindful meditation practice to help me cope with the stress of everyday racism. When I began exploring this practice, using the works of Pema Chodron and Byron Katie, things began to improve.

I realized that if this was a problem for me, it was probably a problem for others. Given the outreach that librarians routinely do and that I personally do on campus, I was poised to be an informal minority outreach librarian. I wanted to provide support to minority students who were being routinely subjected to racial microaggressions. I could be the law school representative who would not minimize or invalidate their experiences. But, since the responsibilities of a diversity outreach librarian were not part of my formal job description, I was, and continue to be, haunted by fears that this would backfire on me since this leaves me open to the reverse racism claims that are more likely in the South. Still, in spite of my concerns and lack of protection (as an at-will staff employee), students come to me, telling me about bias incidents that they were reluctant or unwilling to share with the administration, and I continue to look for ways to have productive workplace conversations about race and racism.

Even now, I still struggle, and the racial microaggressions perpetrated by library patrons require me to be a spiritual warrior. Think of that pro se patron who walks in at 4:55 and is rude and dismissive to you while also asking you for help. It’s like that only these incidents do not occur in a social vacuum. It’s not just the bad attitude that you deal with, but also with the very real racial emotions that people of color experience when operating within a racist social hierarchy.

What that means in practice is that even when I point out these problems, they may be minimized and my experience may be invalidated, so I need to respond with patience. This is a very touchy subject and if people (even nice, well-intentioned people) can find a way to explain it as an individual incident unrelated to racist attitudes then they will.

This is all the more reason why we in the library need to talk about how racial microaggressions can create a climate that is not welcoming to our growing population of students and patrons of color. We need to start thinking as a unit within the University (or law firm), how are we contributing to the institutional commitment to diversity? What can we do to minimize the impact of environmental microaggressions? One example of an environmental microaggression is, “when women in the workplace enter a conference room where portraits of all the past male CEOs or board of directors are honorifically displayed, the message given is that women are less competent and that a glass ceiling exists in the company.” Does this sound like your library, law school or law firm? What if you replaced the word women with students of color and the phrase “past male CEOs” with past white male professors, what message does that send?

For those who are interested, there are many informal articles cropping up on the Internet that can teach you how to be more mindful about the things that you say and do such that you reduce the likelihood of being unintentionally offensive by perpetrating racial microaggressions. Some right wing conservatives believe that racial microaggressions are merely liberals trying to control language and thought. In anticipation of the increasing population of patrons of color who will be gracing our libraries, I posit that it might be time to prepare ourselves as librarians with a little cultural competency and emotional intelligence, because “our unconscious biases negatively impact other people” and because microaggressions do happen in libraries. Moreover as educators, academic law librarians have a responsibility to create an environment in which all of our patrons are treated respectfully and where all librarians can expect to be respected and to get support from the administration when they are subjected to repeated microaggressions that can cause race-based traumatic stress. In fact, all types of libraries may be opening themselves up to potential law suits if they do not address the racial microaggressions in the workplace.

If you are interested in talking about race in your library, check out my next blog post, on How to talk about race in the library. Here's a preview: the short answer is with great kindness. 

Posted By Catherine Deane at 2/26/2015 10:39:20 AM  0 Comments
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