Extras – The Reference Interview Online: A Cyber Dialog From Beginning to End

Robyn Rebollo is Head Law Librarian, Washington, D.C. & Tysons, Virginia,Greenberg Traurig

Due to the increasing globalization of the internet and telecommunication based technology, the majority of law firms, both small and large practice, use email as one of their main forms of communication between working colleagues and clients. And it’s not just at their desktops anymore. According to last year’s Annual Amlaw Tech Survey, law firms spent a significant chunk of money on email wireless gadgets such as Blackberries, and portable laptops. Blackberries, the popular wireless, pager-style email device, which had no niche in the legal community two years ago, is now offered by at least 20 percent of the larger firms in the United States. These findings lead me to believe that email has played a dominant role in not only the way we communicate among one another, but in the way we work together as well. And while electronic mail continues to be a successful mean of communication for the corporate legal community, it has presented some interesting challenges to the reference interview between law library patron and legal researcher.

The reference interview has been an integral part of communication between a law library patron and legal researcher. Any good legal reference librarian knows that it takes quality time to conduct a reference interview where open ended questions are proposed, and constructive dialog has taken place. But what do good reference librarians do when email is the only form of communication taking place between requestor and researcher? During an average busy day, a law firm reference librarian will have answered anywhere from 8 to 20+ inquiries via email (figures were compiled from a simple email poll given to three law firm libraries, including Greenberg Traurig).

Handling various reference inquiries online requires exceptional skills in time management and research knowledge. Some of these inquiries are quick, ready reference questions that require just one follow up email encounter. It is the other complicated questions that involve more time, and often repetitive email banter, that can turn a productive day into a periodic, consuming episode. Librarians are smart when it comes to prioritization and organization. We should try and handle our email correspondence with the same expertise, answering all our quick questions first if possible, and then focusing our efforts on the complex inquiries. Using email software to our advantage by color coding messages that have been already answered, or flagging correspondence that requires our immediate attention, can be a big help. Also, calling on our reference colleagues for their advice and expertise via a group email can save both time and money when one is not sure about what source or path to take when answering a difficult inquiry. A productive way to successfully answer questions where not enough information is provided is to engage the requestor for as much detail as possible, in one concise email. Think for a moment or two before proceeding to hit that email reply button to an online request. I will offer an example from a recent online inquiry that was sent by a busy associate. The associate sent the following message, which included a high importance setting, designating the urgency of the request:

“Can you quickly get a copy of a superseded statute? I am looking for 5 U.S.C. Sec. 2121-2123, which was passed in 1954.”

Since the statute citation was old, I ascertained that there would be some difficulty locating the Statutes at Large cite or title in the current code index. I thought of 4 key questions to send the associate that would help both of us obtain a copy of the original statute in a timely fashion, focusing on any possible details that the requestor might have omitted due to haste:

1. Was the act repealed? If so, do you know the date of the repeal?

2. Do you know the title of the act?

3. What does the act pertain to (i.e. subject matter)?

4. Were there any additional citations given that might help us locate an original copy of the act?

I received the following reply to my inquires:

“All I have is a 1963 Comptroller General Opinion, 43 Comp. Gen, 463, which refers to the statute as “Title III of the Act of Sept. 1, 1954, Ch. 1208, 68 Stat. 112.”

Perfect feedback! The associate was able to provide me with the original Statues at Large cite, which I easily retrieved from Lexis, using the Get a Document service. By asking some key questions, I avoided further email dialog, and saved the attorney time and money for my research services.

I should point out that emails sent by Blackberries are often brief, and sometimes filled with misspelled words due to the nature of PDA correspondence. Blackberries do not have a spell checking device, which causes challenges for both sender and receiver. The sender is doing his/her best to send a grammatically acceptable message, but this is not always possible due to the sender’s current physical surroundings (car, train, even plane), and the unacceptable design of a Blackberry, which is lacking ergonomically (those tiny keys, so closely arranged next to each other). The receiver might get a message that contains unclear terms, or is even missing key sentences.

The best approach in handling these types of quick messages is to immediately notify the sender of the lack of information and/or misspelled words. Addressing the email deficiency right away will encourage the sender to read over his or her email, and possibly provide missing pieces to the initial inquiry.

For further discussion on this issue, with an academic library perspective, I recommend reading Doris Small Helfer’s article: “Virtual Reference in Libraries: Remote Patrons Heading Your Way,” in Searcher, vol. 9, no. 2, February 2001.

Posted in: Email, Extras, Reference Services, Virtual Library