CUA LIS Practicum Diaries: Charles Perkins, George Mason University Law Library

CUA LIS Practicum Diaries are bi-weekly blogposts showcasing current student experiences at their practicum site.

In the third installment of CUA LIS Practicum Diaries, Charles Perkins recaps his experience working in George Mason’s Law Library:

In 1964 Merv Griffin introduced a twist to the classic game show formula when he introduced “Jeopardy!“ the quiz show where the contestants must form a question in response to a clue.  Over the past semester I have wondered if the legendary Mr. Griffin’s inspiration came from watching the interactions between patrons and reference librarians.  While the public perception may be that the reference desk is a location to get answers, more often than not the first stage of a reference interview is the patron sharing problem, an idea, a clue if you will, and the reference librarian finds themselves answering in the form of a question.

I came to library school having already earned my law degree and knowing that I wanted to put that legal training to work as a law librarian preferably in a law school environment.  I chose Catholic University to study because the program offered a concentration in Law Librarianship.  This program has allowed me to take courses such as Law Librarianship (LSC 886) and Advanced Legal Research (LSC 839), in addition to core classes like Information Sources & Services (LSC 553) and electives including Information Literacy & Instructional Design (LSC 644), which all contributed to my understanding of the role of a reference librarian in a law library. 

As I came to my final semester in the program I wanted the opportunity to put into practice the skills I had been learning about and my practicum with the Reference department in Law School’s library gave me the opportunity to interact with the full range of patrons who use George Mason’s Law Library. My practicum adviser Debbie Shrager (a 2010 graduate of CUA’s Library Science School) designed this experience to allow me to participate fully in the work performed by the reference staff. From my first day I was allowed to directly interact with the library’s patrons, and through these interactions I was mentored on how to improve the level of service I was providing, whether it was a helpful suggestion on a resource I had not thought to use or tips on how to better manage a reference interview.

Over the course of the semester I was able to interact with the full range of patrons at the Law Library, from public patrons with no legal training, law students and paralegal students just learning how to use the library’s resources, to local attorneys seeking specific resources.

Sometimes the clues brought to the reference desk were broad like the public patron who dreamed of creating sustainable communities that can be patented and shared with the developing world.   This was an inquiry that went far beyond what I had experience working on.  Here was an opportunity to use one of the early lessons my practicum advisor had shared with me, not to focus on the answer but to identify the resources the patron will need to find their own answers.  With that in mind the patron and I discussed the nature of his work, and I was able to point him in the direction of resources in the library and give him a quick tutorial on how legal resources are organized.  Armed with this knowledge, the patron became very self-sufficient returning to the references desk periodically to update me on his progress or to seek help finding new resources when the veins he was mining would eventually run dry.

Sometimes the clue was a post-it note handed to me by a non-native speaker in the Law School’s LLM program with a deceptively simple question scribbled on it: “What powers does the Constitution give to the states?”  The answer, as any good textualist will tell you, is none. The Constitution creates a federal system where the states give limited enumerated powers to the national government and retain all other powers to themselves.  Despite that very clean academic answer, the law library is filled with over 225 years of court decisions and legal arguments regarding the proper relationship between state and national power.  Working with the student we found her a range of resources from a simple copy of the text of the United States Constitution, to a basic study aid resource discussing constitutional law, and finally a book that provided copies of original documents important to the development of our federal system throughout the nation’s history along with commentary.  At the end of the session the student had the resources to discuss her post-it’s question in a deeper and richer way than simply parroting back a one-sentence answer.

It never mattered to me what form the clue arrived in because each one created an opportunity for me to interact with the patrons of the George Mason Law Library, to work with that patron to more fully articulate a question, and then show them how to use the library’s resources to move that initial clue to a fully developed question, and ultimately into the outcome they sought when they walked through the library door.  I may have not have mastered the game to the level of a Ken Jennings, but over the course of my semester working on the reference desk under the mentorship of the George Mason Law Librarians I have found that as long as I can keep responding to each clue provided by a patron with a well formed and relevant question I will be able to help that patron achieve their research goals. -Charles Perkins

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