When is a Search Not a Search? – Part 1

During a recent library tour at a branch of a large national law firm, I was shown an impressive, wooden chest of drawers in mint condition, housing a set of unused catalog cards. The Librarian jokingly told me how the chest was quite a conversation piece–particularly for young attorneys who had never seen one, and had no idea what it was used for. While I laughed, it’s also true that some attorneys still refer to all library catalogs (even the most sophisticated online ones), as “card catalogs”.

Despite the availability of user training classes, online tutorials, and impressive handouts, some attorneys expect the library catalog’s search functionality to duplicate their desktop Google experience. Why the misconceptions and misnomers?

I think that the answer lies in the fact that there is a fundamental disconnect between the way librarians have traditionally organized, displayed, and retrieved information on books in their collections, compared to the way that attorneys search for information using  Lexis, Westlaw and Google.  And in a time when Library budgets and staff positions are subject to scrutiny and reorganization, this doesn’t help.

Librarians are trained to rely on standardized subject headings to organize and group similar books that generally, yet accurately describe the book. These subject headings are found in bibliographic records that provide multiple access points for the Librarian, including title, author, series, edition, publication date, and length of the book – in addition to the defined subjects. Here is a sample bibliographic record that I found on Google:

Title      Treatise on the law of securities regulation, Volume 3

Practitioner treatise series

Treatise on the Law of Securities Regulation, Thomas Lee Hazen

Author  Thomas Lee Hazen

Edition  6

Publisher             West, 2009

ISBN      0314188029, 9780314188021

Length  7 pages


Business & Economics

Investments & Securities

Business & Economics / Investments & Securities


Securities – United States

Attorneys on the other hand, often find this approach overly complicated, with lots of unnecessary information.  They are more familiar with online searching using unique “terms of art “common to their areas of practice. For a while, firms and/or their libraries hired staff to provide elaborate “data about the data” (i.e. metadata), to attempt to bridge the gap between the generic subject headings and the more specific “terms of art”. This approach can be both costly and cumbersome.

Another difference is that attorneys are used to KWIC or keyword in context searching using Lexis or Westlaw. This format allows them to view the relevancy of their search terms as they appear within the context of the retrieved documents. Traditional catalogs simply don’t have the capability to show how often, or in what context a search term (particularly a “term of art”), appears within a chapter or volume of a book.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will show how Google Books can offer end users the ability to search by keywords or “terms of art” and the ability to show relevancy.



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