Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Buy this man a beer!

It is love/It is fate/It is the feeling I get when you walk away – “Golden State” John Doe

In “The Universe of Thinkable Thoughts: Literary Warrant and West’s Key Number System” Daniel Dabney offers to have a few beers and talk over the West Key Number System with us. Before reading his article, I would have turned him down. What on earth would I want to know about the key number system? I have to point it out to patrons at least five times day. Dabney’s wonderful article has changed my mind. I admit, I didn’t know how interesting and useful the key number system was until I read his article.

Mr. Dabney, the next time you are in Brooklyn, I’ll buy you a beer.

Dabney’s article points out is that the key number system expects the user to have some basic understanding of the law. With that basic understanding, the key number system helps “the searcher ask the right questions.” That phrase points out one of the confusions running through the Spring 2007 issue: what is legal research?

Legal research is not legal scholarship. It is not research as historians or scientists understand it. It is finding out what is allowed. (Evidence chains are a whole other topic.)The West Key Number system is a working tool for trial preparation in a database of previous decisions. (Thanks to the article “Should Legal Research Be Included in the Bar? Steven M. Barkan p. 403, same issue, and Margaret Ann Wilkinson’s "Information Sources Used by Lawyers in Problem-solving: An Empirical Exploration" Library & Information” Science Research 23: 257-276 (2001) for this insight.)

Dabney seems to be suggesting that to find alternative legal theories is certainly possible in free-text searching, but not workable. I see it in the confused souls who come to the library with a legal theory after googling and fuming over what has happened to them, but the system, for better or worse, will not let their theory happen. Law is a system. Now it is a chaotic system, as the availability of contradictory opinions proves, but those contradictions must be resolved through a political process.

Librarians should read “The Age of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America, 1865-1900” by Jack Beatty Some critics have accused it of being too liberal, but I found it just wonderful (an example of how individuals use information to reinforce their own viewpoints). He goes into how the legal system was used against the gains of Reconstruction. The chapter on the Slaughter-House Cases is exciting. Even after a terrible war, slavery was not truly ended and the legal system was used to thwart that victory.

Free text searching may give us alternative legal thoughts, but they have not been tested through the political process. I read somewhere that the problem is we rely “on private enforcement of common rights.” Making a new legal theory and having a judge approve it without public involvement or debate shortchanges the political process. There is only so much that can be expected of the judiciary system. Let's use the West Key Number System better. It is a good system and helps us through the day.

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