20 September 2012

Mobile Reference

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 35.3, December 2010

Once upon a time, reference librarians sat at imposing desks surrounded by stacks of obscure books waiting placidly to dispense truth to its ambitious seekers.

That was before the truth-seekers discovered Google. Upon finding the new oracle, truth-seekers stopped approaching the imposing desks, leaving reference librarians free to concentrate on important tasks like polishing resumes, or to worry that the truth-seekers might be seduced by an easy interpretation of the oracle’s response and never actually penetrate to the truth that Google might (or might not) provide, or obscure, or mis-represent.

But one brave librarian, rather than worry about being replaced or worry that truth-seekers might be led astray, decided to leave the imposing desk’s safety and actually interact with the library patrons no longer approaching it.  This librarian found that people still had questions—but thought they ought now find the answers themselves, instead of asking for help, and appreciated help coming to them.  Thus began mobile reference, which is now common in libraries of all types.  But in the past two years, mobile reference has become nearly as resource-rich as the desk-bound variety, thanks to the iPhone’s impact on mobile technology.

The iPhone (or iPod, or iPad) wasn’t the first “smartphone” device, but it was the first featuring enough screen space to make using the internet practical—and suddenly, a roving reference librarian had access to nearly all the resources available from behind that imposing desk, including the library catalogue and yes, even the Google.  The excitement, captured on film, can be seen in late-night commercials for “Reference Librarians Gone Wild”.

Lawyers, though, aren’t as easily fooled as undergraduate students; lawyers know that sometimes the Google is wrong, and expect more authoritative responses from their librarians.  Fortunately, there’s an app for that.  Apps are miniature programs designed to run on the iPhone and sold via Apple’s iTunes Store.  The concept has now spread to other smartphones as well, so while the following discussion uses Apple examples, similar products are or soon will be available for devices running Google’s Android system and Blackberrys.

Start with books; lawyers love books.  There are a number of e-reader apps on the market: Stanza and iBooks are good, while both the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook software have also been retrofitted for the iPhone.  Any of these will allow downloading full text of many titles, and out-of-copyright material is often free.  A pity, then, that so few legal treatises are available in this format: Kaplan’s Paralegal Handbook may be the only one, and that hardly counts.

Other apps make up for this, though.  Lexis and Westlaw both have free apps that will allow account access; the Lexis version will pull or Shepardize a citation (My firm doesn’t have Westlaw, so I can’t comment on that app).  FastCase has an even better option; it retrieves cases and statutes, for free.  OpenRegs tracks Federal rulemaking, with access to proposals recently opened or closed for commenting, regulations by agency, and more, also free.  Both LawBox and LawStack provide archives of Federal and State Code and Rules, with individual titles for sale within each app at reasonable prices.  Finally, Black’s Law Dictionary is a pricy app, but Nolo’s Law Dictionary is a less-comprehensive free alternative.

There are other fine and valuable apps for legal reference; Vicki Steiner at the UCLA Law School Library maintains a running list.  With resources like this in hand, even staid law librarians should feel free to step out from behind the desk on occasion and take the reference out to find questions in the wild.

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