Legal Research Dead-ends

Like all good things, legal research must come to an end. If you’re fortunate, the end arrives because you begin to encounter the same information – and the information is relevant to the legal issue you’re researching. However, it’s often the case that you reach a dead end due to a lack of time, lack of knowledge, and lack of resources. Take heart — law librarians also encounter these dead ends so it should not disturb researchers working in public libraries when they run up against the same roadblocks.

Shortages of time are universal: law librarians haven’t cracked that riddle, yet. The only thing researchers have to decide is what to do with the time given to them (to paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien).

Lack of knowledge will be a barrier to almost anyone — attorneys and public librarians alike — who is not an experienced practitioner in a given area of law. Consult secondary sources – legal encyclopedias, treatises, restatements of the law, etc., – to gain some familiarity with a topic and its key concepts and terms of art. Along with providing some context to a legal question or issue, secondary sources often point researchers to important primary sources such as statutes and cases. When basic or preeminent treatises are not a part of a library’s general print or electronic collections you will need to rely on interlibrary loan and document delivery services. Which leads to the third roadblock.

Insufficient resources. You will need to decide whether to pursue the research in your local library (via ILL and document delivery), or — if you are assisting a patron — to refer the patron to the specialized collections of public local or state law libraries. Under ideal conditions, a public librarian might also facilitate the patron’s visit to a law library by providing information about a law library’s hours, location and access policies (including how to make copies or scan the law library’s materials).

Finally, some patron questions solicit legal advice and are not appropriately answered via reference assistance with a law librarian, let alone with a public librarian. In these situations, the librarian will do well to have handy a list of legal aid, attorney referral services, and bar associations to provide patrons.
Don’t dread the legal research dead end. At worst they offer us opportunities to think a little more creatively and to make further contacts with library and legal professionals outside of our usual circles.