Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Format Neutral

Most of the law librarians I know try to be format-neutral. By that I mean that we try to help people find the information they need in whatever format it exists — print, LexisNexis or Westlaw, web, etc. We also try to teach students to use as many formats as possible so that they will always be able to find the information they need, but that's a matter for a different posting. Today I want to tell you about the best example of format neutrality that I have witnessed.

A week or two ago, as I arrived at the reference desk to start my shift, another reference librarian was helping a university professor from another department. The professor had come to the law library looking for a very old English statute (1600s, I think). The only information he had was the name of the statute and a date, neither of which is very helpful if you are trying to use a print index to statutes that old. And, not surprisingly, none of our usual electronic databases had anything that old.

My fellow librarian didn't miss a beat. After unsuccessfully attempting to look up the statute in the print sources without a citation – the professor insisted that he shouldn't need one – the librarian turned to the web. Of course, a Google search did not retrieve the statute itself — only something very famous from that century is likely to be on the web. But it did retrieve a paper that cited to the statute, thus making it possible to find the statute in a very old volume in our rare book room.

The moral of the story is that when you are doing legal research, you need to stay flexible. The better you are at using a variety of formats, the better will be your chances of success.

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