Nonlegal Research for Law Librarians

You'd be surprised at some of the research that law librarians do for their patrons.

A law librarian's work isn’t always about looking up cases.

“You’re looking for what?”

I don’t normally need to ask patrons to repeat their requests, but this one was so unusual, I was sure I had misheard it.

“The September 14, 1998, episode of Guiding Light,” said the attorney.

He was assigned to the products liability team in the law firm where I was working, and we had a pretty good relationship. Maybe, I thought, what he needs is a commercial that aired during that episode.

“No,” he said when I asked this. “I need the episode.”

Ohhhh-kay. Would a transcript do?

“No,” he said again. “It needs to be the actual episode.”

In 20+ years of being a law librarian, this is the weirdest request I’ve ever gotten. One of the most frustrating, too, as I never found what that attorney needed despite searching the Paley Center for Media, UCLA’s Film & Television Archive, and enough soap opera message boards that I understood the Clone Reva storyline.

What other sorts of non-legal research is a law librarian likely to undertake?


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Attorneys, as you can imagine, often need access to law journal articles that offer in-depth analyses of issues they may not be familiar with but need to master quickly. I have been asked to track down many such articles in my career.

Yet there are other types of articles attorneys find useful. One is nonlegal scholarly articles. Education, accounting, geology, economics—these are some of the topics attorneys have requested from me. Sometimes, they ask for a specific article; other times, they just need something on the subject.

If you work for a law school library, you easily have this covered, being part of a larger academic institution. But what if you work for a law firm or a public law library?

Large academic libraries often have special access programs for community members, independent researchers, or government employees. I can currently access the library databases of UNC-Chapel Hill through a program called North Carolina Collaboratory. Another option, of course, is interlibrary loan.

Attorneys also often want news articles, either because they are tracking an issue or doing some historical research. Most law libraries subscribe to a few major newspapers, and the accompanying online access is sufficient for older articles from those papers. For other papers, I again rely on other libraries. For instance, in North Carolina, all public libraries offer free access to NC LIVE, a rich resource that includes hundreds of newspapers nationwide.

Occasionally, attorneys want not the text of an article but a graph or picture that appeared in the print issue. Databases don’t usually include such items. Where to find them? Microfilm, of course. Like Nancy and Robin did in season 4, episode 3, of Stranger Things.

(Want to see more? Check out the subtly titled Hot Chicks Looking at Microfilm in Horror Movies.)


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Medical information

Many legal cases turn on accurate analysis of medical information. Think medical malpractice, personal injury, and some criminal trials.

I plan to devote a later article to an in-depth discussion of the intersection of medical information and legal research. For now, I’ll list three websites that will aid any legal researcher working in this area.

  • PubMed.  A project of the National Library of Medicine, this database has over 37 million citations and/or full-text articles from biomedical and life sciences journals.
  • Medline Plus.   Also from the NLM, this site is meant for consumers, but it’s a great place to learn the basics of most diseases and injuries. Especially useful to legal researchers are the medical encyclopedia and drug database.
  • MLA Top Health Websites . A list of high-quality websites courtesy of the Medical Library Association.


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Business Information

There are several reasons why a person might ask a law librarian for help locating information on a business. Maybe they want to know more about a company they’re contemplating doing business with. Maybe it’s customer or market research. Maybe the researcher intends to start their own business and needs to know whether one with a similar name exists.

If the company is a public one, then the research is fairly easy. A public company, or publicly-traded company, is one whose shareholders have a claim to part of the company’s assets and profits. Their shares tend to be traded on exchanges like NASDAQ or the New York Stock Exchange, and they are companies most of us are familiar with—Amazon, Walmart, Apple, Microsoft, CVS, etc.

Public companies are required to report certain information—earnings, assets, liabilities, sales forecasts, management goals—to the Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC, which releases that information to the public. You can find that information by searching EDGAR, the SEC’s Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval system.

(When you do, you’ll see strange terms like 10-K, IPO, blue sky laws, and more. This glossary will define them for you.)

Private companies are ones whose shares and assets are owned by just a few individuals, or maybe only one. They tend to be small companies, though some are large, like Publix, Sheetz, and Bloomberg.

Because private companies aren’t required to report their earnings and other details, it is harder to find information on them. This article describes several techniques, all of which are free but demand a lot of legwork.

There are private company databases, but unlike EDGAR, they tend to require paid subscriptions. This guide and this guide list several of the best and most used. As with scholarly articles, librarians who can ally themselves with an academic library will be able to access many of these. Larger public libraries, as well, may have extensive business collections—the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, for example.



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