From the Legal Skills Prof Blog, a redirect to an excellent essay about giving great presentations.  It ends with this epigrammatic bit of truth:

If we focus on the audience, not ourselves, whether in a one-on-one meeting or a packed auditorium, we’ll deliver a crowd-pleasing, even praiseworthy, performance every time: because success is ultimately about connection, not perfection.

As reviled as it has become in certain corners, that is why I use the Socratic method in the classroom – it helps to focus the class on my class, and not on me.

My X is better than your Y…

Oh, dear.

We’re having that argument again, are we?

I suppose it is perennial.  When we are enamored of a thing, we champion it.  If it works for me, it makes me passionate – I want to evangelize.  I have learned (is it learning to have something knocked into you by hard experience?  Yes?  Then I have learned) to temper my passions and try to see other users’ points of views and modify my recommendations to suit their style, history, preference, and myriad other variables.

Sometimes I even see both sides of a debate because different technologies work better for me in different scenarios (imagine!).  I recently bought a Kindle after a great deal of deliberation and debate.  The small form factor and vast memory are really, really useful for traveling light, for instance.  A huge library of classics is available from Amazon for free (I am currently revisiting the first Louisa May Alcott novel I ever read, Eight Cousins, with a mixture of charm, nostalgia, and nausea).  That being said, I don’t intend to repurchase all of my old favorites.  Having all six of Jane Austen’s novels packaged in one slim vessel is fantastic, but only because I didn’t have to pay a dime for them to replace the leatherbound set that was a gift from a lifelong friend.  In the case of non-classics that are not available for free or at a stupendous discount, some old favorites may be reserved on paper to re-read in the bath.  I don’t intend to replace a lot of my craft reference volumes for the Kindle (or even to start purchasing such works in electronic format).  Some things work better on paper.  Some already exist and don’t need to be duplicated.  Some things (doorstop novels, for instance) make me almost tearfully thankful that I don’t have to use two hands to heft them or use pillows or knees to prop them up.

So a Facebook thread of a friend who also recently purchased a Kindle that spawned several “paper books or death!” comments rather wearied me, and reminded me of a comment I put on a friend’s blog when I was still in library school.  An edited version of that comment is reproduced below:

At 40, I am someone who often falls in between the 20-somethings right out of college and the empty-nesters going back to school and career after a long absence. I have to say I’m pretty sick of being the one who steps into the “OMG! Technology is the answer!” and “Oh woe – technology will swamp our precious books!*” arguments by saying, “Ummm. Wait a minute. Just because Cheshire Academy grabbed headlines by replacing their paper collection with a clutch of Kindles doesn’t mean that is necessarily the way things are going to go for every institution. People still know how to write with a pen, even though there are typewriters and computers. Different formats are going to work for different people and institutions and for different reasons.

It’s not very useful to argue about the superiority of print over digital (or vice versa) without looking at specifics such as audience and budget. Rather than having this [utterly pointless] argument over format, why don’t we all agree that the goal is to get useful information into the hands of our patron communities in the way that works best given the resources and restrictions at the institution in question?”

*I swear, if I have to listen to one more person talk about how they love the smell of a book one more time, I will scream. Not because I don’t love the smell of books myself, but because it’s NOT A USEFUL ARGUMENT** when you’re talking about dissemination of information.

**sorry, my lawyer is showing.

Can we just get on with reading and learning and not worry overmuch about whether the medium is paper, screen, or stone tablet?

It’s sad, really…

…how true this is:

How you know you are in the right place – or – slime and substance

How do you know you have chosen the right profession?

Back in my communications days, my boss and I decided that a good way to give our investors the increasingly voluminous amounts of information they demanded was via a CD.  While everything the investors were looking for was on our website, they often wanted to have something physical (I know – I don’t understand it either.  But this was also more than three years ago.  Much has changed in the intervening years.  Or possibly much has not, but one of the things I learned in communications was that giving people what they wanted in the format they wanted it in was infinitely more effective than giving them what they wanted in a format they weren’t particularly interested in).

Since we already offered a standard information kit – a two-pocket folder filled with sheets of 8.5 x 11″ paper – the trick was how to get the CDs in their hands.  We didn’t want to abandon all of the paper, since you don’t need a computer to read paper, and an investor who grabbed our kit at a conference out of curiosity wasn’t going to boot up his or her laptop in order to find out if we were interesting enough to merit a visit to our presentation.  So we would stick with our folder and some of our paper.  But then what?  The heavier, odd-shaped CD was likely to slide out of the folder, leaving the meat of our information in some hotel hallway or Manhattan street.

Trust me, we’re getting to the library part soon.

So my boss and I had a conversation that went something like this:

Me: “What we need is some of that sticky goop that peels away.”

Boss: “What sticky goop?”

Me: “You know – the snot they stick plastic gift cards to the cardstock enclosure cards with.”

Boss:  “…” (Here I imagine that if he did not know me better, he would be thinking, “What kind of lunatic have I hired?”  Since he knew me quite well, he was probably thinking, “Yep, that’s our lunatic.”)

Me: “That way, the CD will stick to the folder, but the investors can peel the snot away and put it in a file if they want to [edit: I meant put the CD in a file – I am sure nobody wanted to file the snot].”

Surprisingly, this plan was decided to be sound.  Here’s where the library bit came in: I did not know how much the snot cost.  I did not know how the snot was dispensed.  I had no idea who to source the snot from.  I did not know what the snot was called in order to find out the answers to any of these questions. But the prospect of finding out was one that intrigued me.  I knew this was something that was something, just as a young law student might know that a party-giver who lets someone drunkenly drive away from his home has a possible legal problem on his hands but not how to begin researching it in legal sources until he has learned its name.

I did not know, but found out by a process of iterative searches that the snot is called fugitive adhesive.  The law student would find out that their issue is one of social host liability.  I hope two things for that imaginary law student: 1.) that he enjoys the process of finding out, and 2.) he does not bore his friends and colleagues with delight from the aptness of the term as I am liable to do to this day.*  But I do know that my love of the search and my delight in its result tells me (and not for the first time) that I have chosen the right profession.

*I mean really – how can you not love the term “fugitive adhesive”?

Greetings, Law Librarian Blog visitors

I had the good fortune to meet Joe Hodnicki last week at the blogger meetup at AALL in Denver.  I had the bad fortune to not get a chance to talk to him at all – rather I just summoned up some hubris, slid him my card and pointed at the door signifying that I had to race off to yet another event.  Such is the way of conferences.

So, what did this noob think of AALL?  Let me preface by noting that I am, as the British would say, a “mature student.”  I’ve not been to this rodeo before, but I’ve been to analogous events in my prior career as a corporate communications professional.  I am also not by nature a “joiner.”  All of this means that I look at conferences with a somewhat jaded eye, but I have to say I was favorably impressed on my first outing.  Here are a few thoughts:

  • CONELL: if you are planning on going to AALL for the first time, do this.  It makes the biggest difference in the world to have a cohort of people that you can get to know on that first day.  It is so worth it: for the rest of the conference (and probably the rest of your career), you will be running into familiar, friendly faces.  My “freshman class of 2010” is a group I am proud to have begun to know.
  • Two excellent presentations I attended – “Library Videos: Getting Blockbuster Quality on an Indie Budget” and “Starting Off on the Right Track: Avoiding Mistakes Common to New (and Not-so-New) Instructors” were both fantastic.  I generally feel if you get one decent presentation out of a conference you are ahead of the game (see above re: “jaded”).  These two surpassed my expectations by miles.
  • The keynote presentation by Dr. David Lankes of Syracuse was entertaining and thought provoking (note to AALL – couldn’t you have made this embeddable?  You can get it at the link above – he starts about 15 minutes in).  I especially liked his notion that our value is not in our collections but ourselves.  We are the resources that should be valued, and that valuation needs to start in our own behaviors and attitudes.
  • I demonstrated Zotero with Jennifer Duperon of Boston University.  (The online handout we created is here).  I don’t know how the entire “Cool Tools Cafe” event went: we were absolutely mobbed with people who were interested in learning about this fantastic citation manager and I barely had time to look around.

One thing that stood out for me that was categorically different from the other groups I have been a member of was borne out of a quality that I believe is inherent in most librarians.  I am not sure what to call that quality, but I can illustrate it:* with most groups, there seems to be a sense that if I have something then it is something that must necessarily be taken away from someone else – or perhaps a group of someones.  The competitive edge is strong in many professions, and seeing someone new creates a sense that there is now one less opportunity for the rest.  But librarians just don’t strike me that way.  It seems to be our nature.  Where a law student might say to him or herself, “Oooh – I found the resource.   I must hide it so I have the edge,” a librarian will excitedly say, “Hey – did you see this resource?  It’s really cool – let me share it with you!”  That collaborative, sharing spirit seems to extend to the entry of the profession as a whole.  Our CONELL class was welcomed with open arms by the existing membership.

So, again – to all who are visiting for the first time from Law Librarian Blog, greetings to you and thank you for being such a great group of people.  I am proud to be joining you.

*And I admit it is a variation on one of my pet themes.

“A Plagiarism Carol” – or why I wish I had paid attention when my grandmother tried to teach me Norwegian

If you don’t happen speak Norwegian and the subtitles are not showing, be sure to click the “cc” button to turn the subtitles on.  Though I have to say, if you know what the movie is about, you don’t really need the subtitles all that much.

Huge hat tip to the Legal Writing Prof Blog for this one.

Wikipedia. Your mom.

“Don’t rely on Wikipedia,” we are often told.  “It is an unreliable resource.”  This is, in varying degrees, true.  The community-based editing that makes Wikipedia vibrant and sometimes more current than traditional news sources also makes it subject to error, bias, and outright fraud and vandalism.  Moreover, from a legal perspective Wikipedia has time and again been rejected as a source of facts subject to judicial notice.*

The problem as I see it is that having decided that Wikipedia is not authoritative, most people decide that it is useless.  This is another example of the “zero sum” arguments that crop up as too-easy answers to areas that deserve a viewing in shades of gray.**  Wikipedia isn’t useless because it needs to be double-checked.  You just have to use it differently than you would a more authoritative resource.  An authoritative case should be Shepardized, and so should Wikipedia entries be bolstered by citable authority.

There is a lot to be commended about many Wikipedia entries – they can give you a fast, clear view on a variety of subjects both trivial and serious.  They can provide you with new vocabulary that might be useful in a full-text search.  And they might give you some additional facts (which, yes, should be double-checked) about a subject which you were previously ignorant of.

So, just as a reporter’s mantra is, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” so should a serious researcher’s mantra be, “If you find it on Wikipedia, double-check with an authoritative source.”

After all, we don’t despise our mothers and we needn’t despise Wikipedia.

*See what I did there?  I’m sorry.  I couldn’t resist.

**See also “Wrong Question” and other entries in the “X v. Y” category


If you are interested in seeing how Wikipedia pages develop and evolve, here is a video that describes the process.  It is entertaining and surprisingly current despite having been recorded in 2005.

Context, Part 2

Comprehensive resources can be dangerous things.  Many humans are creatures of habit and will go to the usual well for their answers, but a well that produces fresh, clean water is not much use if what you really want is milk.  This can be especially pernicious for law students, who begin to get the idea that the entire universe of knowledge is contained within Lexis or Westlaw.  But not all the things a practicing lawyer needs to know are contained in statutes, cases, or treatises.

Consider the case of an accident in a warehouse – your client is injured in a forklift accident and there is some question as to the safety procedures and equipment.  “Quick – find me Jones on Forklifts,“ right?  Certainly there is such a treatise in one of the big two databases, right?

Wrong.  Also silly.  But it would be a safe bet that most law students who have had an introduction to those databases would turn instantly to them and do a keyword search for “forklift.”  And there are undoubtedly cases galore having to do with forklift accidents.  Perhaps there are even mentions of such accidents in Prosser or other tort resources.

But what does our hypothetical law student really know about the operation of a forklift?  Doesn’t the fact pattern turn on the safety equipment and procedures?  Some judges can write wonderful, detailed, and educational factual backgrounds that give plenty of context for the cases they are adjudicating, but it is a safe bet that reading through them is a woefully inefficient way of looking for information on the topic of forklift safety.  The facts of the particular case at issue are potentially important here: they provide the context for the entire claim.

So, on the one hand we have a doubly expensive resource – a database that costs a great deal to use and is inefficient in terms of providing the factual information that will enable an attorney to assess the potential merits of the case.  On the other hand, there are more precise, non-legal resources that can give the attorney the factual grounding in an unfamiliar subject he or she needs (e.g. the public library, OSHA’s website, possibly even Uncle Fred who is a supervisor in a warehouse and has done this kind of work for 20 years).  Many or most of these are also free for the user.

Thinking about what sort of non-legal information is necessary to provide context for the claim can save a world of aggravation and grief and make the later search for legal authority far more efficient, cost-effective and fruitful.

(For people interested in teaching the combined use of legal and non-legal resources to solve legal problems, I can highly recommend Carrie Teitcher’s fantastic article, “Rebooting the Approach to Teaching Research: Embracing the Computer Age.”)

Lies we tell ourselves about research (and one way of getting to the truth)

In an earlier post, I mentioned that “students (in general – not just law students) frequently have a much higher opinion of their ability to find things then their ability actually warrants.”  This is not just true of students – I believe many of us, both professionals information-finders and amateurs, think we are very good at finding information.  We may well be right in most cases, but in most cases we also may be looking for things that are very easy to find.  And as we all know, there are many ways for pieces of information to hide.

You can have information that hides in plain sight – the old saw about how a search for “Turkey” is just as likely to bring up recipes as it is travel guides is a true one.  Similarly, we may have many names for the same concept: “fair value accounting” is also commonly called “mark-to-market accounting.”  A search for only one of these terms may miss some very valuable information.

This is where I insert a plea for indexes and other finding aids.  “Targeted full-text search” sounds really, really good until you come up against a term like “securities fraud.”  It is a very useful descriptive term in its own right; however, it is also maddeningly general.  What sort of securities fraud are you talking about?  Do you even know?  How do you find out?  Well, one way is certainly to walk down the tried and true legal research method of consulting a secondary source like a treatise, a hornbook, an encyclopedia, or a nutshell.

Another way of approaching the search process is to consult the index of a publication (if there is one – unfortunately, they have been deemed expendable by many in the era of full text).  Now, if you have consulted my “About” page, you may say, “Oh – but you would say that: you work as an index editor!”  And yes, I do.  But I also used to use this trick as a law student, many years before I even knew what an index editor was.

When you look at an index, you are not looking at a haphazard assortment of keywords.  Usually you are looking at a selected set of meaningfully distinguished, specific terms set out in an organized way: a hierarchical map of the work in question.  And if there are two terms that mean the same thing, you will encounter a see instruction (e.g. “mark-to-market accounting, see fair value accounting”).

The clues dropped by an index can thereby increase the efficiency of a free-text search.  You can scan down the index entries for “securities fraud” and see the various types of fraud that an ingenious fraudster can commit – perhaps those would be more specific, fruitful terms for you to use in your search.  You can also get a sense of what alternate terms for your area of interest might be useful.

How often do the search terms we use initially really do the job?  Well, as in any enterprise, that depends.  But looking at an index is one way of helping to make the search process a targeted, fruitful endeavor.

I promise to move on to another topic soon

But this piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education has some wonderful things to say about the fact that there is both room and need for electronic and paper collections.

I was going to select a pull quote, but couldn’t settle on just one.

(Hat tip to the AALL Twitter feed for the link.)