UVA Law Library's 'Refdesk' Tackles Tricky Research Queries in Support of Faculty


Research librarian Leslie Ashbrook (right) staffs the UVA Law Library's reference desk. The 'Refdesk' staff fielded 2,376 research requests from 85 faculty members in 2011 and is on track to handle a similar number of requests in 2012.

August 30, 2012

When University of Virginia law professor and legal historian Risa Goluboff needs to track down facts, data or statistics for her research, she invariably seeks out the assistance of the sleuths in the Law Library's research department, through their service known as "Refdesk."

"Not only do they track down obscure sources — often with only partial bibliographic information — they also find, amass and analyze data of all kinds," Goluboff said. "They are facile with every kind of source, from U.S. Census data to FBI crime reports; they are facile with every search engine; and they go to great lengths."

The Law Library's staff of 10 research librarians, she said, has become an indispensable part of her writing process.

"They make what I do possible. They make my work so much more efficient, expansive, and just plain right," Goluboff said. "I keep a document open while I'm working called, 'To get from Refdesk.' As I work, I add things to the list. Then I send it. Then the materials arrive. It's incredible."

Providing the highest-possible level of research assistance to faculty members is the Law Library's top priority, said Library Director Taylor Fitchett.

Supporting faculty research helps make the Law School more competitive, she said. It is often cited while recruiting potential professors as a key reason to join the Virginia Law faculty.

"Having access to a world of information via the Internet dupes us into believing that everything we need is at our fingertips," Fitchett said. "But the experienced researcher knows that much information is yet to be digitized and that culling the most relevant and authentic materials from the glut of amorphous goop that lives in cyberspace can be challenging. The librarians who form the Refdesk team are pros who bring together a variety of expertise and experience to assist faculty and students in doing efficient and effective research."

On a typical day, Refdesk librarians receive around 15 requests from the Law School faculty. The librarians field the requests in two-hour shifts and rotate who handles weekend shifts.

"It's a pretty simple system," said research librarian Ben Doherty. "When an email comes in during your shift, you have the primary responsibility for it and then, as needed, you can ask other people for help or refer it on to someone who specializes in a certain area."

In an average shift, the librarian on call usually gets four or five requests, he said.

"Those requests range from, 'Could you deliver this book to me?' to 'Could you suggest good biographies of Supreme Court justices?' to 'Could you find me statistics on the races of criminal defendants?'," he said.

In 2011, Refdesk fielded 2,376 email research requests from 85 faculty members. The Refdesk team is on pace to match those numbers in 2012, having received 1,192 email requests from 81 faculty members during the first six months of the year.

According to research librarian Leslie Ashbrook, the "fun part" is handling the wide variety of professors' questions, which might involve cutting-edge academic research or legal history.

"It's even better when a hard question comes up on someone else's shift," Ashbrook joked. "Because then you can just sit back and wait to find out what the answer is."

The Refdesk team's work is often incorporated into professors' classes and scholarship, the librarians said. Sometimes their work provides background research for a topic a professor is beginning to explore, while other times they help fill out footnotes on a nearly completed article.

"Having some type of faculty support is pretty standard in law schools, but the way we do it allows us to really take it to a high level," Ashbrook said. "It's not cursory research. The product we turn out is quite exemplary."
Fitchett said the library's research support stands out among top law schools.

"I know that our colleagues at other top law schools are striving to enhance research service as the need for the more traditional reference service has declined because of the availability of the Internet," she said. "Still, few schools are equipped to assist the empirical researcher to the extent that we are, and our ability to answer questions in U.S. law as well as foreign, international and comparative law is second to none."

Professor Brandon Garrett called the Law Library's research support "unparalleled" and noted that the Refdesk librarians not only locate relevant materials and sources, but also help shape faculty research projects.

Garrett has worked directly with Research Librarian Jon Ashley for several years on a database of information on corporate prosecutions. Garrett is writing a forthcoming book on the topic.

"Together we have created an archive of deferred prosecution agreements in federal organizational prosecutions that has been for some time the authoritative resource, much used by practitioners from white collar defense lawyers to prosecutors, and much cited in academic literature on the subject," Garrett said. "More recently, we have been creating a much larger archive of materials concerning the almost 2,000 federal convictions of organizations since 2001, which also promises to be a unique and useful resource."

Each step of the way, he said, Ashley has done "enormous work gathering and categorizing information as well as proposing new ways to design and organize the information."

"This data has formed the backbone of law review articles and now a book in progress on corporate prosecutions — but these websites stand on their own as an important contribution to our understanding of how companies are prosecuted," Garrett said.

UVA Law faculty members often praise the librarians' research services in print.

In Professor G. Edward White's 2012 book, "Law in American History," he wrote: "The University of Virginia School of Law's reference desk compares favorably, in my view, with any other research library in the nation, and although I attempted to confound the group at 'refdesk' with questions about arcane and obscure sources, they came up with them as always."

Professor Anne Coughlin's article, "Representing the Forbidden," which appeared in the California Law Review, was dedicated to the reference librarians at the University of Virginia Law Library.

"They helped me out of more scrapes than I (and, I hope, they) care to mention," Coughlin wrote, "and, more to the point, they are the most wonderful people on the planet."


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