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E-Ref = Frustration Squared

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Virtual Email Reference

It’s not easy explaining how to research a legal question – and try doing it in high-heels and backwards – no, wait, I mean in an email message. I love to write (and am even working on a piece about Virtual Legal Reference and Writer’s Voice), but virtual legal reference makes me crazy. Not “Don’t Make Me Do It” crazy, but more of “I Love Trying to Figure Out How to Say This, but Don’t Have Three Hours to Figure Out How to Say It Intelligibly So You Don’t YELL at Me for Not Answering Your Question The Way You Think It Should Be Answered” crazy.

Law librarians and others who staff reference desks or online reference services get a lot of grief for our long, seemingly evasive, answers to “simple” legal questions. Take a look at poor Mr. Groklaw who took the time and trouble to explain at great length what appears to be a simple question (and it’s not even about the law – only about legal citation!) but clearly isn’t. If you read the comments what is also clear is that he got grief. He was only trying to help. We’re a tough bunch, we law librarians and keep trying year after year – against all odds. We don’t quit even after getting grief – and we do get it, oh do we get it. (But we do get a cartoon to see us through the day – Unshelved.)

Here’s an exercise for all of you who think it ought to be simpler for us to explain the law. Try and explain how to cut your fingernails, and do it in writing, in fewer than 500 words – words that won’t result in someone suing you because you caused them to put out an eye. And then hand it to a friend (or an enemy) and tell that person to follow the instructions. Prepare to laugh – or run for a bandage. Wait. Instead, try writing instructions for something that doesn’t involve sharp objects. Say, write a set of instructions for standing still, in this pose.

(Yes, the “law” maybe should be simpler, but it’s not –and even if it was simpler, you’re still going to have to do some work – you can’t just get an answer in a paragraph via email. You would still have to study, take a class, or visit the library and research. After all, your case and you are unique – aren’t you?)

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