Academic Law Librarianship


Annalee Hickman; Janet Kearney; and Kelly M. Leong

In doing reference work, reference librarians direct, instruct, teach, assist, advise, and answer questions for patrons. In a catch-all definition, reference work encompasses reference librarians connecting patrons with resources, referrals, and answers to any library-related or research request. In academic law libraries, most reference questions are uniquely focused on legal resources, and reference work tends to be performed by librarians with law degrees and library science degrees.

In this chapter, we will discuss the following areas of reference work in academic law libraries: the basics of reference services, including the reference interview; typical reference questions and difficult reference situations; unique reference services for specific patrons (law students, law faculty, other academic community members, and the public); and reference tracking and data.

Key Concepts
  • The reference interview is used to determine a patron’s reference question.
  • There are typical reference questions and answers, such that you can prepare for your first reference desk session.
  • Each patron type will have unique reference service needs.

The Basics of Reference Work

Reference Services

Reference services are offered in a variety of formats, including in-person (both drop-in and by appointment), email, online chat, phone, and video calling. Many academic law libraries limit some or all of these reference formats to law students and law faculty only. Remote reference services, through email, online chat, phone, and video calling, are becoming increasingly popular, and reference librarians may be tasked with staffing the physical reference desk for drop-in reference, while also responding to remote reference services at the same time.

Reference Spaces

Reference spaces in academic law libraries resemble many similar spaces in other libraries. Common reference spaces include a reference desk, which can be either standalone or combined with other service points, such as circulation and/or IT; and a reference office, which could either be a standalone reference office or in the offices of individual reference librarians. Less common reference spaces include tabling outside the library and ad hoc training given in doctrinal classes.

Regardless of how the reference space appears, it tends to be equipped with useful reference materials. A computer is generally a must-have so that the librarian can demonstrate research to the patron. Many reference desks provide a second monitor or the capability to rotate the monitor in order to demonstrate online research efforts to patrons. Additionally, print reference materials are still commonly used and tend to be located at or near the reference space.

The Reference Interview

The reference interview in academic law libraries is a complicated exercise, requiring reference librarians to parse out the type of question being asked and the type of patron asking the question. Questions may be academic legal reference questions or practical legal reference questions. Patrons may be law students, law faculty, non-law university students, attorneys, paralegals, or public patrons from the community who have no legal background. Understanding the categories to which the question and patron belong will influence the resources suggested and the manner in which those resources are explained. For example, answering academic legal reference questions may require different resources than practical legal reference questions. Additionally, an attorney may need less explanation on how to find and use a resource than a public patron who has no legal background, even if both patrons want to find the same case.

The reference interview should include the following questions:

  • Are you a law student? If so, what year are you? Or are you an undergraduate student? Attorney? Paralegal?
    • In this step, the reference librarian determines what type of patron they are working with so that the librarian can assess the patron’s legal background. Knowing the category of patron type also allows the librarian to know what library resources the patron can access. For example, law faculty members and law students may have access to more electronic resources through library licensing agreements than the other patron types.
  • For what purpose are you asking this question?
    • In this step, the reference librarian determines if the question is an academic legal reference question or a practical legal reference question.
  • What research have you already carried out? Which search terms did you use? What resources have you already consulted? How did you search within those resources?
  • What deadlines or restrictions do you have for completing your reference question?

The reference interview is dependent on the sharp listening skills of the reference librarian. The librarian must listen attentively to the patron and how the patron describes their information needs. Additionally, the librarian should use, when possible, body language and nonverbal cues to indicate to the patron that they are listening and, in turn, should look for body language and nonverbal cues from the patron as well to help assess the patron’s understanding.


Wednesday morning, when the reference librarian checked the reference email, they saw that a third-year law student had emailed during the night. The 3L wanted to know how to find the state legislative history for a particular statute. When responding, the librarian included a couple of links to research guides about that particular state’s legislative history but suggested that the 3L make an appointment for a video call with them due to the complicated nature of legislative history research. The video call would allow the librarian to share their screen and walk the 3L through the process to find the specific state statute’s legislative history.

The reference interview will vary depending on the reference format and may require more granular questions. For example, the reference interview in an online chat requires more questions to be asked because the reference librarian does not benefit from visual cues that may help them determine how much explanation for a resource they need to give. The online chat also may be the most difficult reference format for sharing information due to the purely online and text-focused format. For complicated legal issues, the reference librarian may need to refer the patron to a different format, such as following up through an email, a phone call, a meeting in person, or a video call that would allow the reference librarian to share their screen and show the patron resources synchronously.

Cultural Competency

It is important to be culturally competent when carrying out reference services. The Diversity and Inclusion chapter in this book provides information and advice that should be applied when doing reference work. Reference librarians, along with circulation staff, are often the face of the library, and they are the primary contact points for patrons. As a primary point of contact in the academic law library, the reference librarian must treat all patrons with dignity and respect using the tools of cultural competency.

As applied to reference work, librarians should strive to:

  • prevent cultural differences from creating tension with the patron or affecting the reference interaction,
  • have empathy,
  • demonstrate equity,
  • embrace diversity, and
  • learn and respect differing views experienced through the reference interaction.

Reference Questions

Reference librarians encounter numerous types of questions in each reference space and format. This section will introduce the most popular categories of reference questions and the most difficult situations across all patron types.

Typical Questions

While a day in the life of a reference librarian at an academic law library is rarely typical, the most frequently asked questions can be grouped into the following:

  1. Citations: How do I cite this case? What does this citation mean? Why is The Bluebook so horrible?

Law students, primarily first-years and LL.M. students writing their first memos and briefs, often ask reference librarians how to cite a particular source using The Bluebook. The level of Bluebook instruction varies widely across law schools, and students come to law school with varying levels of general citation skills. In a first interaction with a student on this question, it is appropriate to explain how The Bluebook is organized and how to find the specific rules using the source type, table of contents, and index. Advising the student that the suggested citations in databases do not usually comply with The Bluebook is helpful too. Reference librarians vary on how much detail they provide to students, but it is generally best to give guidance rather than telling the student exactly what to do. If a librarian does that, they may quickly find themselves feeling like a citation-generating machine. It is not just law students, though; law faculty will often ask librarians to do this as well.

  1. Access: Where is this book? How do I find this particular article? Does the library have a database on arbitration?

The most common type of information literacy instruction reference librarians provide is showing patrons how to find library materials. For students, it is appropriate to walk them through the process of using the library catalog or other resource finders the law library may provide such as database lists, journal lists, or research guides. Although these may seem like direct questions, it is still appropriate to conduct a reference interview with students to determine their information needs; often, the patron has a reference need beyond the particular book or database. For example, a student writing a seminar paper may have a book reference from a faculty member, but in addition to this one book, they will also need to navigate library resources to continue and expand their research. This is critical to empower the students to be information literate with library resources.


One afternoon, a slightly harried-looking second-year law student rushed up to the reference librarian at the reference desk. The student said, “I need this book on online gambling laws—does the library have it?” While the librarian started pulling up the catalog to search, they asked, “Interesting topic. Is this for a seminar paper?” With that simple question, the student explained their 30-page comparative law paper on online gambling in multiple jurisdictions and how their professor recommended the book. The librarian said, “It sounds like you’ll need a few more resources. Do you have a few minutes to discuss finding other similar sources and some helpful library resources?”

For faculty, it is more common for the reference librarian to pull (or coordinate through other library staff) materials directly, rather than explain the process of finding materials, unless it is specifically requested.

  1. Legislative History: How do I find the legislative history of this law?

This is a common question from both law faculty and students, but each group asks the question with differing levels of background knowledge, which affects the outcome of the reference interview. For students, there tends to be a greater misunderstanding of what legislative history is, when it is needed, and how to find it. It is critical to conduct a thorough reference interview to understand why the student is looking for legislative history information, which in turn will direct how the reference librarian navigates them through the process. Generally, the librarian wants to direct the student first to secondary sources discussing the history, then to compiled legislative histories, before turning to how to create a legislative history from scratch. Most student research needs will end before they need to construct a complete history on their own. For law faculty, they may understand the mechanics of legislative history but tend to lean on the librarian to conduct the research because it can sometimes be time-consuming and overwhelming.

  1. Dockets and Court Filings: Does the library have PACER? Where can I find this amicus brief?

For these questions, it is critical to set expectations for what is actually available, particularly when the request concerns state dockets. Depending on the library’s resources and the patron type, federal dockets and full-text court filings since about the year 2000 are likely available on Bloomberg Law (exact years of coverage vary, and historical content is sometimes added). Lexis and Westlaw have dockets as well and vary in their coverage of the full text of filings. Most libraries either do not have student PACER accounts, allow only law faculty to make PACER requests, or require that PACER requests go through the library. The more recent a case is, the more likely it is that the federal court website will have the court filings for free. For state courts, the availability varies widely based on the state, level of court, type of case, and date. A good starting point for determining where to find these materials is a research guide from a law library in the particular state. Subscription databases, such as Lexis or Westlaw, should also note what coverage they include. Many patrons, particularly first-time docket users, expect that dockets and the full text of all associated filings should be easily available online but that they are simply looking in the wrong place. While it is fully possible such patrons are indeed looking in the wrong place; it is often more likely that the information is not available or is much more difficult to track down, so set expectations for the patron.

  1. Foreign and International Law: Where can I find the laws of China? In English? Where can I search all cases from France? In English? How can I search all human rights cases?

While some libraries have specialized librarians (typically titled Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Librarian or some variation thereof), all reference librarians should be able to get the patron started on research in this area using a research guide that provides basic background information and guidelines on finding materials. The best place to begin is GlobaLex, which is a free website that has guides on foreign countries and international law topics, often from experts in the regions. Other helpful guides can typically be found from law libraries that have large international collections (like Michigan, Yale, and the Library of Congress). As with other areas of the law, the librarian should direct patrons to secondary sources while keeping in mind that the patron may need to search beyond the typical U.S. resources by using databases and finding aids for journals published in other countries (such as the Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals on HeinOnline). It is also more likely that the helpful books patrons want on these topics are not available online unless those books are from a major publisher (like Oxford, Cambridge, or Elgar). When researching foreign law, a recommended subscription database is Brill’s Foreign Law Guide. For public international law topics, see Max Planck Encyclopedias of International Law.

  1. Interdisciplinary Materials: Where can I find business information on a company? How can I find environmental science articles?

Although many academic law libraries maintain a collection of interdisciplinary materials, they are understandably most often geared towards law-related materials. However, patron questions are not always so confined. For example, students looking for business information on a company may find the profiles from the typical legal research databases sufficient, but they will not be able to find industry profiles or market analyses. Many patron questions can be answered using library resources from other units of the university, like the university library or a business school library (or a medical library, science library, etc.). The reference librarian should determine if their law library maintains its own catalog of materials or has a combined catalog with the university’s other libraries. In an environment with separate catalogs, be familiar with how to search for resources from other university libraries. If the reference librarian has questions on navigating the resources or has access issues, they should reach out to the librarians working in these other libraries for help. Often, these librarians can help the reference librarian answer the original reference question. Typically, university libraries provide access to frequently used resources like newspaper, business, and science databases and broader periodical databases.

  1. Technology and Directional: Where is the bathroom? How do I use the printer? How do I format my Word document? Why is the printer broken?”

Be prepared to answer more of these questions at the beginning of the semester and also at the end of the semester, when the demand for printing increases, and even those students who studiously avoided the library during the semester are inclined to visit as they prepare for exams. Reference librarians will learn more about their library during these time periods than they could ever remember from their new employee onboarding.

Difficult Questions

While the typical questions are likely to be the most frequent, they are far from the only questions reference librarians will ever see. The most difficult questions to handle are those that the reference librarian has never encountered, those that require a follow-up, or those that require the reference librarian to gently say no. We will address each of these questions in turn.

Unknown Areas

Repeat after me—“I don’t know.” There is no harm in saying this! All the reference librarian can do is admit it, commit to trying to find the answer and follow up, and then actually follow up. Reference librarians can say, “I am not sure about that. Let me find out, and I can get back with you. What’s the best way to contact you?” It is that simple. Remember to conduct a thorough reference interview; an “unknown question” can often be a simple miscommunication of the final goal.

Reference librarians will likely find themselves asking more reference questions than they did as law students. This might mean asking fellow reference librarians or using the contacts that reference librarians have made in the profession (such as former classmates, colleagues, or a professional organization). It may require reference librarians to reach out to other libraries for assistance. For example, use the online chat service at the main university library if the question is about navigating a business database, or call the reference desk at a library that specializes in that area. Follow the advice given to patrons when they encounter an unknown area: Is there a research guide you can start with? Can you find a secondary source using a finding aid?

Following Up

Often, reference librarians will receive questions that will take them longer to research or that require them to take extra time to give the patron literacy instruction. Take, for example, the legislative history question mentioned above—while it may not take too long to discuss the various databases that compile legislative history, what if the reference librarian needs to advise the student on how to construct a legislative history from nothing? Regardless of the reference format, the best way to handle this question is to communicate clearly with the patron what they can expect. If it is just a matter of timing, tell them how long it will take to get back to them. If the student dropped by quickly, but it will take longer than they anticipated, ask them to set an appointment to follow up. While the reference librarian can welcome the student to come back to the reference desk in that scenario, it is more likely that the student will have a follow-up interaction by setting an appointment.

Setting Limits & Saying No

One of the big issues that reference librarians encounter in a service-based profession is that they want to provide services, no matter the obstacles. But reference librarians cannot and should not provide every service. Thus, it is critical that reference librarians set limits for what they are willing to do. If a faculty member asks the reference librarian to make copies, even though it is someone else’s job, and the reference librarian agrees to do it, then the faculty member will likely make it the reference librarian’s job to make copies from thereon out. If the reference librarian has a request from a faculty member (usually) or from a student (sometimes) that could be beyond the scope of services the reference librarian provides, they should ask their supervisor. This may be awkward when the patron is with them, but it is better to be uncomfortable than to promise something that the reference librarian cannot deliver or to overextend themselves.

A big part of setting limits and saying no is offering alternatives and explaining why the request cannot be completed as originally imagined. The time it takes to complete a project is a common obstacle. A request from a law faculty member sometimes cannot be answered as quickly as they would like, often due to the nature of the request or logistical constraints on librarian time. When requests come in from a faculty member, ask for a timeline or provide one: “I can get this to you by Friday,” or “When do you need this done? Realistically, I can complete it in two weeks.” If a requested project cannot be completed in a faculty member’s timeline, explain the practical limitations. Tell the faculty member what can be provided realistically within their timeframe and suggest breaking it down into smaller projects.


One Monday morning, the reference librarian and the library intern were working at the reference desk. A law faculty member came in with a number of books and papers and approached the reference librarian. The faculty member said, “I’m updating a casebook and need to find updated case references for every case in these three chapters older than 2015.” The reference librarian said, “Sure, it will likely take me until Friday.” The faculty member responded, “A whole week?!” The reference librarian responded, “Unfortunately, yes. Some of my time this week is already dedicated to other projects, and I’d like to keep my promise to you for when I can finish your request. I think Friday is doable.”

Reference librarians will consistently run into issues setting limits, particularly while navigating projects that may be difficult or impossible. The job of the reference librarian is to provide information, including analyzing the limits of resources and being able to explain how things may or may not work to the patron. For example, if a faculty member requests a docket search of intermediate courts of appeals in all fifty U.S. states and expects that it can be done in a few hours, it is the job of the reference librarian to explain, not just that there is not a single reliable resource for this, but what steps might be taken to provide the needed information. The concept of setting limits and saying no is easier said than done. It may take time and practice to feel comfortable.

Unique Services by Patron Type

Reference librarians working in academic law libraries focus their work primarily on law faculty and law students. Still, they may also work with other members of the law school and university communities, along with members of the general public, including local attorneys. Providing reference services to each of these patron groups may require a different approach. In this section, we will discuss each patron group and the specialized considerations when serving their information needs.

Law Students

Law students have a diverse set of reference needs that are often tied to upper-level coursework, like seminar papers, and extracurricular activities such as journal membership and externships. First-year law students will also require a basic introduction to legal materials and search techniques.

Law Journal Members

Journal members are the heaviest users of law library reference services after law faculty. As such, it is advisable to build a solid training program for journal students. Such a program requires continual outreach due to yearly changeover in editorial boards. It is common at many law schools for reference librarians to provide in-person training to the law school’s journal members focusing on basic research skills. In some cases, librarians provide specialized training for journals that cover a specific area of law, for example, an environmental law journal.

Beyond basic training, reference assistance for journal students will focus on two primary areas: 1) assisting journal students in writing a scholarly article for publication and 2) reviewing the citations of all articles selected for publication in the journal, referred to as source-pulling and cite-checking.

Assisting journal students with writing a scholarly article will require various types of reference assistance. At the early stages, journal students will often seek assistance with finding a topic to write on and then ensuring that the chosen topic has not been written on, known as a preemption check. Generally, for topic selection, the librarian will suggest different current awareness resources in the chosen subject area for the student to review. As for preemption checking, this sounds more onerous than it is. With the size of legal academia, most subjects have been written on, but as long as a student provides a differing analysis or solutions that are not identical to another author’s, then the topic may be viable. There are many library research guides that provide information on the process of topic selection and preemption checking.

Cite-checking is a process by which all citations of an article selected for publication by a law school journal are confirmed to support statements in the article and formatted to meet the citation manual of record for the journal (usually The Bluebook). To confirm that a cited source supports information in the article, students need to locate the source (commonly called source-pulling), and this is when most journal members will come to the reference librarian for assistance. Most journal students do their best to locate sources on their own and only come to the librarians for assistance after an exhaustive search has failed to locate the source. This occurs most frequently with uncommon sources, historical materials, or foreign and international sources. Catalogs can be tricky, and sometimes it is as easy as demonstrating how to refine a search in the catalog, but other times, the librarian may need to refer the journal student to interlibrary loan to retrieve the source. It is important to note that some journal students wait until just before their cite-checking assignment is due to perform the work, and as a result, last-minute requests are frequent.

Students Enrolled in Research Classes

While performing reference services, librarians are likely to encounter students that are enrolled in basic or advanced research classes. As part of basic legal research instruction and their writing course, first-year students will often need to perform legal research and, during that process, are likely to approach the reference desk with questions. These questions range from a simple “Where do I find this?” to complicated questions about court structure and precedential authority. First-year students are often unsure whether to ask the reference librarian or their writing instructor. The reference librarian should feel comfortable referring the student to their writing instructor for questions related to writing, particularly questions related to writing style.

Beyond first-year students, second-and third-year law students may be enrolled in advanced legal research classes requiring completion of in-depth research assignments. When assisting law students with research assignments, it is important to guide these students through the research process without completing the work for them. There are always one or two students that will attempt to have the reference librarian complete their work. The reference librarian will want to provide as much help as possible but must resist the temptation to complete the assignment while still guiding the student to appropriate resources. Rely on the reference interview as discussed. Particularly, asking the student to summarize the steps they have already taken gives them an opportunity to reflect—an important part of learning that may help them identify their error. It will also give the reference librarian the opportunity to offer guidance within the framework of the research the student has already performed.

Students Writing Scholarly Papers

Most law schools require students to complete writing requirements that involve well-researched papers. These students will often encounter similar issues as journal students and need assistance with topic selection and preemption checking. Depending on the topic of the paper, the reference librarian may need to assist these students with locating not just legal resources but resources across disciplines. Legal scholarship is becoming interdisciplinary and requires basic knowledge of resources in other disciplines. Some of the most common disciplines are sociology, psychology, criminal justice, history, and philosophy. When possible, it is advisable to consult the subject specialists in other libraries at the university to assist in locating library resources for students.

Law Faculty

Academic law librarians provide a significant amount of reference and research support for the law faculty. Academic law librarians tend to offer more in-depth reference services than librarians at larger university libraries in part due to the often smaller librarian-to-faculty ratio in academic law libraries. Faculty research services may include annotated bibliographies, in-depth research, ad hoc bibliographic instruction, and training for faculty research assistants. Particularly with law faculty services, any given interaction between faculty and academic law librarians will include reference and research aspects, and it can be difficult to separate them.

Annotated bibliographies and in-depth research assistance for law faculty are two of the most primary aspects of reference work in an academic law library. Annotated bibliographies (also known as literature reviews) are often the first step for a faculty member beginning a new research project. Annotated bibliographies for law faculty require skillful research of the literature in a specific area, along with time to review the materials and write a synopsis of each source. The reference librarian’s role is to evaluate, select, and summarize appropriate resources that best serve the faculty members’ information needs. Both annotated bibliographies and in-depth research take time to do well.

Law faculty often hire law student research assistants that perform research work throughout the year, though they are most often hired at the beginning of summer. While students generally receive basic research instruction in their first year of law school, they tend to require more advanced research skills as a research assistant. Research assistants are likely to approach reference librarians with questions about appropriate research strategies, resources, and obstacles they have encountered in their research. Faculty may require that research assistants meet with a librarian prior to beginning their research or recommend consultations with librarians to overcome research issues.

Faculty may also approach the reference desk with last-minute research and reference requests. Some of the most common last-minute requests are materials for instruction and information to support media interviews. Unlike in-depth research efforts that support faculty scholarly work, these requests require speed and accuracy while meeting fast-approaching deadlines. These interactions require that the reference librarian can quickly create a search strategy, identify appropriate sources, and seek assistance from other librarians, if necessary.

Although these are common faculty services provided in an academic law library, always expect the unexpected from faculty. Out-of-the-ordinary faculty reference requests are fairly common and keep law librarianship interesting.

Other Law School & University Community Members

Academic law librarians also provide reference services to other law school departments and the university community as a whole. As part of the greater law school and university community, relationship building is an integral part of academic law librarianship. Building relationships with other departments and other librarians across the university often begins with a reference question that manifests into an ongoing relationship.


The law school is contemplating adding a new law student competition with a cash prize. In considering this new competition, the administration approaches the library to gather information on other peer schools running similar competitions and asks that you gather as much information as possible. This information will be used to determine whether they will offer the law student competition. To gather this information, the librarian will compile similar law student competition information from peer schools, often in the form of a spreadsheet, from web searches, and contacting other schools via email or phone.

Increasingly, academic law librarians are called upon to provide reference assistance in the form of competitive intelligence for law school departments. Competitive intelligence is the gathering and analysis of information to support institutional decision-making. Competitive intelligence projects in the academic law library regularly include gathering information on programs offered by other law schools for the career services, development, and student affairs offices.

Most academic libraries are open to the entire university community and, more often than not, share resources with the university libraries. For reference services, this means that reference librarians have access to resources across disciplines and that librarians may be asked questions by university community members that do not have a foundation in legal research or access to databases such as Bloomberg Law, Lexis, and Westlaw. When working with members of the university community, it is important to conduct a thorough reference interview. These individuals may not have experience with legal questions and materials, so performing the reference interview will help reference librarians elicit the information needed to assist them. Take time to explain each resource’s purpose and how each resource is most effectively used to answer the question.

The Public

Local Attorneys

Local attorneys are often granted permission to use local academic law libraries as part of a library’s access policy or as alumni of the law school. Local attorneys are generally skilled in legal research and require minimal assistance with locating and using legal resources. However, it is common for local attorneys to visit academic law libraries when their firms do not have access to certain materials. This often arises in the context of expensive legal treatises, legislative history, or public access to legal databases, such as HeinOnline or Westlaw. In most instances, the local attorneys have either called or searched the catalog for a specific resource and will approach the reference desk for directional information or to learn how to use a specific database.

General Public

Academic law libraries have diverse policies on access to the physical library for public patrons that range from free access to no access. Within this spectrum of access to the physical library, libraries may also have specific access policies for print materials and electronic resources. Most academic law libraries that provide physical access to the public tend to offer some very basic reference assistance, such as access to reference librarians, public computer terminals, and print materials. Often patrons request access to paid databases such as Lexis, Westlaw, and PACER, but many academic law libraries do not purchase public access to these databases due to cost.

When assisting public patrons, reference librarians should be knowledgeable about free and low-cost resources. Some of these resources may include federal, state, and local government websites such as those of legislatures, city councils, and agencies. Additionally, most case law is available on Google Scholar. Even if an academic law library is not open to the public, reference librarians may receive phone calls or emails from public patrons asking for assistance. In these instances, it is helpful to have a list of contact information for public law libraries, a local attorney referral service, and legal aid programs.

All reference librarians should be aware of the unlicensed practice of law standards in their state. These unlicensed practice of law statutes vary by state and directly impact the amount and type of assistance reference librarians may provide a patron. For example, reference librarians may only be permitted by law to demonstrate how a legal resource may be used to look up a legal question and may not be able to provide a patron with search terms. Although it may feel awkward, tell patrons that reference librarians cannot answer specific legal questions because it is prohibited by law and then follow through by pointing patrons to the resources that may answer their questions, usually free and low-cost legal resources. Reference librarians may receive pushback from some patrons, so it is important to be consistent with this message.

Reference Tracking & Data

Academic law libraries track reference transactions as required by various higher education oversight organizations and other data-collecting publications such as the U.S. News and World Report. Defining what constitutes a reference transaction will vary based on the institution and the various reporting requirements of organizations and publications such as ACRL and U.S. News. A reference transaction generally includes any interaction that involves the knowledge, use, recommendation, interpretation, or instruction in the use of one or more information sources, usually by a librarian, but it can be performed by any member of the library staff.

Academic law libraries use various methods and systems to track reference transactions. Regardless of the method, library staff will likely track all of their transactions, including reference, directional, access, circulation, and others. The two most popular methods are sampling and real-time data collection. The sampling method tracks reference transactions for a specified amount of time per week, month, or year. It may be one day per week, one week per month, or a few weeks per year. The real-time method asks staff to track all of their transactions at all times. Systems for tracking reference transactions can be simple data entry sheets where staff place hash marks in the appropriate box, or a library may subscribe to a data collection software such as Gimlet or Springshare’s RefAnalytics. The information collected can also vary widely from library to library, but most often, libraries collect: who asked the question (e.g., student, faculty), when the question was asked, how the question was asked (e.g., in-person, email, online chat, phone), where the question was asked (e.g., reference desk, circulation desk), and how long it took to answer the question.

The collected reference data is beneficial beyond the necessary reporting requirements and is often used to make internal library decisions. Whether or not the data can be used will be dependent on which data is collected. Libraries should regularly evaluate the data they are collecting to determine if it meets reporting needs, supports library decision-making, assists in demonstrating library value, and provides frequently requested data from the law school or university. Examples of internal library uses include setting library hours, scheduling library staff, and informing the creation of library materials like research guides. In addition to internal library use, collected data can be used to inform the law school and university of library efforts, such as publishing the number of reference transactions in a given year or the number of faculty research projects completed by the library.

All reference librarians, regardless of whether they serve as administrators, should understand the role of reference tracking and data in their libraries and use tracking tools consistently. While the collection of library data is an administrative task that is often overlooked in the discussion of reference work, it is a vital part of our quantifying the daily and intellectual work of the academic law library and highlights the library’s role in the life of the law school.

  • Mary Whisner, Practicing Reference: Thoughts for Librarians and Legal Researchers (2006).
  • Virginia M. Tucker & Marc Lampson, Finding the Answers to Legal Questions (2d ed. 2018).
  • Carrie Forbes & Peggy Keeran, Reference, Instruction, and Outreach: Current Methods and Models, in Academic Librarianship Today (Todd Gilman ed., 2017).


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Introduction to Law Librarianship Copyright © 2021 by Annalee Hickman; Janet Kearney; and Kelly M. Leong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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