Can Legal Research Be Taught? Part 3: Pushing Ourselves Further

My previous blog posts in this series [See Part 1 and Part 2] have focused on the role relevance determination plays in both the practice and the teaching of legal research. The first post pointed to the puzzle of how students can be expected to determine the relevance of their results if they do not possess the subject knowledge needed to recognize a relevant document. The second post drew from the information science literature to set out the different types of relevance, highlighting in particular the subject knowledge view of relevance that posits that determining relevance depends on an understanding of how knowledge is created, disseminated, and organized with a particular subject, or discipline.

Those posts highlighted metacognition, legal bibliography, and legal analysis and argument as the types of subject knowledge that we can teach our students to help them learn how to make relevance determinations in legal research. We need only teach our students enough of this subject knowledge to enable them to conduct effective and efficient legal research. In order to teach this material, however, our knowledge as instructors must be expert.

To that end, it is worth exploring further what all the “subject knowledge” of subject knowledge relevance may entail. Part 2 borrowed a great deal from the information scientist Birger Hjorland, who, in his work on relevance, has connected the subject knowledge view of relevance to the domain-analytic perspective in information science. [1] Domain analysis, as explicated by Hjorland and others, states that the proper object of study for information science is not the document, nor the system, nor the user, but rather the knowledge domain. A domain “is the set of information systems, resources, services, and processes associated with a group of users with common concerns and a common viewpoint.” [2]

The expert researcher, therefore, does not require complete knowledge of a particular subject (say, law), but rather a functional knowledge of the domain – how its systems (documents, institutions, norms) interact with its users (attorneys, judges, law professors, law students) to generate knowledge (the law and legal analysis). Insofar as law librarians and legal research instructors seek to develop their expertise, we should be reading and contributing to studies, practices, and scholarship that deepens our understanding of the domains of legal practice and legal scholarship.

Hjorland proposes eleven approaches to domain analysis that range from the practical to the scholarly (literature guides, special classifications and thesauri, indexing and retrieval, user studies, bibliometric studies, historical studies, document studies, epistemological and critical studies, terminological and discourse studies, communication structures and institutions, and cognition and artificial intelligence). [3] Law librarians and legal research instructors, in creating and consuming these sorts of work, gain greater insight into the knowledge domain of law, which in turn, enhances their own legal research expertise and their teaching.

Admittedly, that’s a lot of long-winded paragraphs just to land on, “Hey, guys, read Law Library Journal,” but my point is a broader one. We should all take a page out of Brandon Wright Adler’s book and find ways to eke out the time to devote to organizing our thoughts on legal research and law libraries and writing them down – if only to deepen our own personal knowledge of the subject. If we can find the time and possess the inclination, we should research, write, and publish to further our collective understanding of how knowledge is created, disseminated, and organized in the legal domain and how the information systems we work within and the users we work with create that domain. We should read Law Library Journal and Legal Reference Services Quarterly, yes, but we should also re-acquaint ourselves with the broader LIS literature, to draw lessons and inspiration that we may apply to our narrower specialization.

If we are to be the experts in legal research, then we must also be leaders in developing knowledge in our field, furthering the understanding of the legal domain and of our own place within it. Can legal research be taught? Of course it can, if it’s taught by someone driven to understand it.


[1] Birger Hjorland, The Foundation of the Concept of Relevance, 61 J. Am. Soc’y for Info. Sci. & Tech. 217, 231 (2010).

[2] David Bawden & Lyn Robinson, Introduction to Information Science 93 (2013).

[3] Birger Hjorland, Domain Analysis in Information Science: Eleven Approaches – Traditional as Well as Innovative, 58 J. of Documentation 422 (2002).

[Editor’s note: republished with permission of the author – first published on RIPS Librarian Blog.]

Posted in: Legal Education, Legal Research, Legal Research Training