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Law Library News for May 3, 1999

Linda Kawaguchi, editor

Law Library News Archive


Two Golden Rules of Research & Using LegalTrac

by Marc Lampson, Law Librarianship Intern

I have two golden rules I try to keep in mind when I start any research project:

  • Rule One: "If I find one good case, I�m golden."
  • Rule Two: "Somebody (golden) has probably already done it for me."

These rules are related. If you find "one good case," you can use the topic and key numbers from West�s headnotes, you can track down the authorities cited by the court, the docket number, the attorneys listed, Shepardizing, Keyciting, and more to turn that one good case into a gold mine. But how do you find that one good case? That�s the relationship to the second rule, that someone has probably already done the work for you.

Rather than starting out to find that "one good case" by slogging through the General Digest or hurling a few hundred queries at the WA-CS database, think: "secondary sources." And for today, think: LegalTrac, the new search interface associated with the law library�s new online catalog, Marian. LegalTrac is an online index to legal periodicals that can contain articles that just might cite hundreds of good cases (or other material) on an issue that you are researching. LegalTrac was formerly known as Legal Resource Index on our old catalog. It is the same database, just a different search interface.

You can do four different types of searches on LegalTrac: subject guide, relevance, keyword, and advanced. This week we'll just briefly review these four because except for keyword searching, the others may be a little new to most of us. So first, the one we're most likely to use: keyword.

As the documentation tells us, "Keyword Search lets you find articles by entering any words you want. The system looks in titles, citations and abstracts (with the option, in some collections, to search the article text) for occurrences of the words you typed within two words of each other in either direction, then shows you the results in order from newest to oldest articles." Two things to note here: One, the system searches for the keywords you enter in three different fields, not just titles, and not everywhere in the record. Two, it searches for those words in relationship to one another - they must appear within two words of one another. That is not typical keyword searching! Although it resembles queries you can make on Lexis or Westlaw or Dialog, on those systems you must make the adjacency relationship explicit. In LegalTrac the system makes that relationship for you and you might interpret your results incorrectly if you are not aware of what the system is doing for you - or to you.

A second type of search you can do is "Subject Guide Search." The system's documentation for this feature says it "lets you search for articles by topic. You'll see a list of all subject headings that match what you typed, each of which leads to articles about the subject." Be careful! Subject searching is always problematic. It is tempting for the researcher to plunge into a subject guide search having only a broad idea of what is needed. But subject search systems are usually doing something other than what the typical user expects. For instance, in LegalTrac, if you enter a subject and the LegalTrac subject headings do not match what you entered, LegalTrac tells you there are "no exact matches" for your subject and does a keyword search for you instead.

A search strategy likely to be new to most of us is what LegalTrac calls a "Relevance Search." LegalTrac tells us that this feature "lets you find articles by entering any words you want. The system looks in titles, citations and abstracts (with the option, in some collections, to search in the article text) for occurrences of the words you typed, together, separately, and in variant forms, then shows you the most relevant matching citations first." But, you say, that sounds like the other two. Well, sort of, but read carefully. The "Help" documentation says the system looks in titles, citations and abstracts for your terms, but when you click on the "relevance search" link the relevance search window says that in fact the system will "search for articles by author, title or subject combination" and will retrieve up to 200 items "sorted by relevance."

Some things to note: First, it appears that the system will retrieve 200 items no matter what. Second, the system does not really tell you how it is determining "relevance," but it is likely that relevance is determined by the number of times your search terms appear (close together?) in the documents. Third, this new feature is something the prior interface could not do and merits further exploration.

Next week we'll look further at LegalTrac search features and focus particularly on the exciting aspects of how your results are displayed and what you can do once those results are displayed. For now, we encourage you to spend some time exploring the powerful new search features of LegalTrac. The system will be going through some modifications over the months, but it can only get better.