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Volume 45, Number 2

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Refdesk: The University of Virginia Law Library's Approach to E-mail Reference

By Barbara Selby

"The remoter and more general aspects of the law are those which give it universal interest. It is through them that you not only become a great master in your calling, but connect your subject with the universe and catch an echo of the infinite, a glimpse of its unfathomable process, a hint of the universal law." Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in The Path of the Law, 1897.

As Holmes implies, the Law is universal and touches all aspects of our life. We wake up on sheets which are labeled for their fiber content; our breakfast cereal states its nutritional value; we drive to work in cars which must pass crash tests, burning gasoline which is graded according to government guidelines; our computer monitors must meet mandated standards; etc., etc., etc.

These trivial examples only scratch the surface of the ways in which Law impacts on our everyday life. Law professors, in their academic writings, intend to do much more than scratch the surface. They delve to great depths in the many areas where life and Law intersect. A few titles from articles in recent law reviews from Virginia law schools should suffice:

"Bargaining in the Shadow of Love: The enforcement of premarital agreements and how we think about marriage"

"Is Emissions Trading an Economic Incentive Program?: Replacing the command and control/economic incentive dichotomy"

"Hard Bargains: The politics of heterosexuality"

"God and Man in the Yale Dormitories"

"Sex and Guilt"

"The Constitutionality of Censure"

"A Literalist Proposes Four Modest Revisions to U.C.C. Article 3"

"Don't Ask, Just Tell: Insider trading after United States v. O'Hagan"

"At War with the Environment" 1

Because law school libraries are smaller and serve a more concentrated clientele than an undergraduate or graduate university or college library, they tend to cater to professors and do more actual research for professors. In fact one law school library invites legal reference questions from around the world: Recent questions to this site included:

Were there small claims courts in Italy in the year 1498?

How can I find information regarding any penalties imposed on those who violate the statute of limitations in regards to child support for the states of Oklahoma and Virginia?

If the President is impeached, are the laws he signed and/or the Executive Orders he issued also impeached?

Who said (and where), something like: "Judges should not be blind to what the whole world can see."

The University of Virginia Law School Library serves its faculty research needs primarily via an E-mail reference affectionately known as "refdesk". Faculty are invited to submit any and all questions to refdesk. It is their point of contact with the library. Whether their question is an involved research query or simply a request for photocopies they send it to refdesk. Reference librarians monitor refdesk in two hour shifts. They forward the photocopy and other simple requests to library assistants, while keeping the interesting questions for themselves.

Reference librarians may spend a few minutes on a question or they may search for days. Professors are never turned away with the "Here, let me show you some sources you might want to look in" line. (Students, of course, are.) Refdesk is designed to give the professor the answer to the question, not to teach her how to approach research. Of course, some professors do want to learn more about how to find answers. Librarians get to know the preferences of law professors and answer questions accordingly. A web address may be provided to a particularly computer savvy professor, while another professor with a similar question may be sent the information in an e-mail message or as a printout.

Refdesk has proven extremely popular. In March there were 215 e-mailed requests from 47 professors. The questions broke down as follows: 92 copying or retrieval of Law Library material, 71 miscellaneous reference inquiries, 43 copying or retrieval from other UVA libraries or via ILL, 7 acquisition requests, 2 reserve/circulation inquiries.

Many of the 135 copying and retrieval requests are straightforward. On the other hand, law professors aren't immune from the "the title is... when the title really is something quite different" syndrome. So even these "simple" copying requests can turn into hunting expeditions. Additionally, a "simple" copy request may be for dozens of articles.

The 71 "miscellaneous reference inquiries" are, of course, our meat and potatoes (or pasta and tofu, if you prefer). Again, these run the gamut from finding a judge's mailing address to researching a mid-century Virginia congressman's views on taxation to exploring Internet chat rooms with a professor. Reference librarians will search databases, read articles and books, surf the Web, make numerous phone calls, etc., in order to answer a professor's question.

Once the answer is found, it is e-mailed back to the professor and to all other reference librarians. This enables everyone to see the answer, and learn from each question. Of course, some reference librarians have specialties. If a particularly difficult international law question comes in, the librarian on duty may consult with the International Law librarian before responding to the question. Usually, the librarian on duty does some preliminary groundwork and then consults the specialist in that area. Currently there is no central file of previous refdesk questions. The creation of such a file is under consideration.

Here's a sample of questions that have come through on refdesk. Some have been changed slightly for privacy reasons.

Why the state-local dominance on matters relating to environmental regulation of land use versus the federal dominance in matters relating to pollution control?

Can "Va [expletive deleted]" be put on a vanity license plate in Virginia?

What was the break-down of Federalists and Anti-Federalists/Republicans in Pennsylvania's first few congressional delegations?

Request for information on integrated pest management for a cultivated environment.

Is there a word for a river that keeps being the same river when it joins up with other rivers that lose their name?

I'm interested in differences in meaning, if there are any, among rapine, pillage, plunder, sacking, and looting.

I am looking for pictures of two architectural models of Marcel Breuer's proposed building above the Grand Central Station.

Can we get any data on the number of cases (a) pending (b) decided in Delaware's (I) Court of Chancery and (ii) Supreme Court in (x) 1975 and (y) the most recent year available

Were the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq are authorized by a UN Security Council Resolution and, if so, which Resolution?

Need articles discussing the pork barrel aspects of the Lawrence Welk museum on which some congressional worthies proposed to lavish federal money in 1991-92.

Copy of a photo published in Hustler, December 1978, at page 18. (Cited as example of porn)

What was Thomas Jefferson doing at the age of 40?

Copy of a state constitution (try CA or MA) containing very detailed rules about subjects that are covered in the U.S. Constitution in abstract, terse language--e.g., detailed rules about freedom of speech or police procedures.

Two possible endings:

1) Now, if we could only find the (male) reference librarian who's searching for the picture from Huslter....

2) Perhaps some of the answers provided by refdesk will help UVA law professors "catch an echo of the infinite" in their articles and lectures.


1 Here are the Blue Book citations for the articles I mention. (Don't get me started on Blue Book format...) Brian Bix, Bargaining in the Shadow of Love: The enforcement of premarital agreements and how we think about marriage, 40 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 145 (1998).

David M. Driesen, Is Emissions Trading an Economic Incentive Program?: Replacing the command and control/economic incentive dichotomy, 55 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 289 (1998).

Linda Hirshman, Hard Bargains: The politics of heterosexuality, 55 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 185 (1998).

Michael C. Dorf, God and Man in the Yale Dormitories, 84 Va. L. Rev. 843 (1998).

Anne M. Coughlin, Sex and Guilt, 84 Va. L. Rev. (1998).

Michael J. Gerhardt, The Constitutionality of Censure, 33 U Rich. L. Rev. 33 (1999).

Timothy R. Zinnecker, A Literalist Proposes Four Modest Revisions to U.C.C. Article 3, U. Rich. L. Rev. 63 (1998).

Richard W. Painter et al., Don't Ask, Just Tell: Insider trading after United States v. O'Hagan, Va. L. Rev. 153 (1998).

David A. Wirth, At War with the Environment, 84 Va. L. Rev. 153 (1998).

Barbie Selby is Documents Librarian at the UVA Law School Library, and is currently Chair of the Publications Committee of the Virginia Library Association.

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