When in Doubt, Start with the Basics

abcAs a Research Fellow at the Sol Blatt Jr. Law Library, I frequently assist students, alumni, professors, staff, and attorneys with research topics.  Each task is unique, requiring a variety of problem-solving skills and techniques.  Some topics are new to me, others are jurisdiction specific involving common law, requiring in depth analysis into case-based reasoning.  Thankfully, the resources available in the law library reflect the heterogeneity of the legal profession.  With so many options, where should one begin their research?  Some people start with the stacks of books on the shelves; others start with electronic resource.  When in doubt, start with the basics.

Electronic secondary resources are basic and often necessary to begin research.  A few weeks ago, one research topic involved a quote from a former United States Supreme Court Justice.  As a former Justice of the Supreme Court, one may expect a quote from such a prominent judicial figure to be well known and widely referenced.  Further, one may reasonably expect that a simple Google of the quote shall reveal the source document.  However, this was not a quote from a judicial opinion and I didn’t have the full quote, only a paraphrase of the quote.  Herein lies the need for a variety of problem-solving skills and technique.  From reviewing the paraphrase, I was able to determine the essence of the sought-after language.  From there, I began my research using a secondary resource (Google).

Using Google as a legal research tool is not unlike using legal databases.  It requires patience, determination, and an efficient use of Boolean search strings.  Without exact quoted language, how could I use what I did know to assist with the search?  What did I know, if anything?  As this quote is from a former Supreme Court Justice, I knew the author of the quote.  Every Boolean search string contained the author of the quote in quotation marks, combined with keyword search terms.  Regarding the quoted language, my understanding of the essence of the quote evolved as I began searching.  After several attempts, I modified and narrowed my keyword search term based on my search results to further limit my search results.  With patience, determination, and an efficient use of Boolean search strings on Google, I finally found promising results.

To know the specific Justice is to know more than a name.  One fact relevant to finding quotes of Supreme Court Justices is understanding their ideology.  By knowing the specific Justice, I also knew or was able to determine the ideology of that Justice.  This is important because quotes from Justices are likely to be referenced by organizations who share that same ideology.  Reputable organizations, especially those in which the Justice is a current or former member, are regarded as trustworthy.  It should not come as a surprise that my search led me to the webpage of an organization conforming to the former Justice’s ideology, further establishing the reliability of the search result.

Finally, I’ve found the source document containing the quoted language.  Because I was only provided a paraphrase of the quote, I relied heavily on the essence of that paraphrase to find the corresponding quote.  Needless to say, the importance of reading comprehension is paramount when undertaking such a task.

When in doubt, start with the basics.  Electronic secondary resources are a great place to begin research.  The search itself involves the use of additional skills and those skills can be developed over time.  Because each task is unique, requiring a variety of problem-solving skills and techniques, use what you already know to obtain the best results.


~Amen Myers

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