Understanding information-seeking behavior and the needs of Italian legal users in accessing legal literature

Autore:Ginevra Peruginelli
Carica:Institute of Legal Information Theory and Techniques of the Italian National Research Council.

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@1. The legal literature's users context

Users of legal literature share the characteristics, attitudes and needs of other users in seeking for information, but have other particular features due to the sophisticated nature of legal information.

In Italy in particular, legal doctrine users belong to different categories, professional and non-professional, with different levels of skill in using bibliographic and indexing tools. They have different interests according to their profession and specialization, and discrepancies are found in the use made of various legal literature materials and in the activities for which legal literature is needed. Based on literature research and experience on the field of legal research, an assumption is made that faculty members make quite extensive use of legal doctrine materials for their teaching and research activities, followed by students preparing their theses, and by lawyers. The latter, together with judges, administrators and ordinary citizens usually use statutes and case-law reports as their primary sources, and search for specific legal literature items only in some cases, using a limited number of preferred resources, such as specific reviews and directories.

Little research has been done in Italy into legal literature users' needs and their satisfaction with current tools and services; their ability to use information technologies; desired services and unmet requirements. This is the motivating factor behind the present research project, addressing Page 282 issues concerning the use of legal literature in general and concentrating on a survey investigation into the information-seeking behavior and requirements of a specific category of legal literature users, represented by faculty members, since they are the ones who are supposed to most need legal doctrine materials and make considerable use of them. This research project is intended to provide indications for a wider project, aiming at building an Italian portal of legal literature, under the supervision of the Istituto di Teoria e Tecniche dell'informazione Giuridica of CNR (ITTIG)1.

@2. Research methodology

An approach consisting of different research methods, reflecting the main aim of the project, was considered appropriate for an understanding of Italian legal users' information-seeking behavior, the perception of their needs and the advantages and limitations of existing information tools and services.

@@2.1. Literature review's outline of legal doctrine access issues

A literature review has been conducted and contributions have been selected highlighting those issues which seemed particularly relevant to the Italian situation.

One recurring theme is the role of contemporary information technologies and Internet in transforming the delivery and access to legal information. Authors show various approaches to this multifaceted topic and sometimes even diverging opinions. Some of them2 analyze the state of legal information and argue that legal users need more extensive indexing systems and library tools to locate materials in a changing environment. The expensive bibliographic and full-text databases Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis play an important role, but legal users (and information professionals) are faced with new needs and phenomena, such as increased focus on legislation and administrative law, interdisciplinary Page 283 research approaches to legal problems, internationalization and historical research in law. These phenomena make legal research more and more complex and show how no single data base can accomplish the functions required by current legal users.

Some authors3 show particular concern for the problems users encounter in accessing law resources in an electronic environment. On the basis of an analysis of an extensive number of law library and law firm web sites, it is argued how quality of resources, persistency of links and design interfaces are crucial issues to be carefully considered in accessing legal material. Other major issues regard the quality control needed for law-oriented Internet sites and the importance of content and accuracy of databases as well as of user-friendly interfaces.

A specific problem encountered by legal literature researchers on the web is the effective use of law review citations4, which are often far from being reliable and stable.

Some scepticism is shown5 about retrieval systems in law searching, due to their tendency to locate mainly discrete legal issues and not complicated or abstract law concepts.

Another major point is made concerning the need for links between the three essential components of legal research: statutes, case law and literature. Systems where hypertext links allow legal users to move between references in such a way that any source mentioned in a database (a case, a statute or a journal article) could lead users directly, with a simple click, to the referenced source. This is an extremely important function6 frequently requested by legal users, as many surveys show. Page 284

Legal research teaching is another topic frequently addressed in conjunction with legal information access issues. Its importance is viewed both in association with the amount of legal electronic resources made available in print and digital form, but also with the complexity of legal information per se, which requires sophisticated search skills and legal subject expertise to be acquired by information professionals who must become educators of end users. The reinforcement of bibliographic instruction is also pinpointed as an important requirement for law students and researchers7.

More comprehensive coverage and consistent analysis of legal literature in libraries and indexing systems are frequently advocated8 and currency, coverage and high quality subject analysis in indexing legal literature are claimed as major requirements. Also stressed is the need for cross-searching facilities between diversely classified materials, and for multilingual thesauri to help users navigate through different systems.

It is also pointed out that indexing services and the relative databases often fail to meet, at the same time, the requirements of currency, coverage and high-quality indexing. This is specifically the case of Italy, where sophisticated indexing tools may be found in databases which lack adequate coverage9.

The electronic publication of scholarly information in law is a topic related to the production of legal literature, as well as to its access. This issue has recently been tackled by a number of authors. The need for open and quick access to legal publishing is a major function of the LEDA

(Legal Electronic Document Archive) project developed by the Harvard Law School Library and by the Cornell Legal Information Institute10, Page 285 designed to provide law schools with the capabilities for creating e-print servers as sources for accessing working papers, articles, theses and briefs for the benefit of legal users. A strong supporter of electronic publishing for law is Hibbits11, who envisages a revolution (although he calls his project "a modest proposal") in the law review system, where scholars can take complete control of the production and dissemination of their own works, and where users worldwide will benefit in their research work.

It seems appropriate to mention briefly a few reports on surveys and case studies specifically dedicated to legal users. These investigations have been carried out in certain types of environment and institutions, but the methodology, the topics investigated and their results can provide useful insights to surveys and research projects in different law contexts.

An example of the impact of using electronic legal documents in a traditional setting is offered by the Georgetown University Law Library. A very optimistic view is shown by the information professionals in charge of the survey conducted12 who report data indicating how electronic resources have become primary sources of information for law students. Declines in circulation, shelving and vending photocopying are considered as possible indicators that the increased availability of electronic resources has contributed to these declines.

The 1999/2000 survey on law library use in the UK and Ireland (conducted on behalf of SPTL-Society of Public Teachers of Law / BIALL-British and Irish Association of Law Librarians) is described by Jackson13, who was in charge of the survey and who outlines the methodology, response rates and results of investigation, where the main topics examined are Internet access, workstations, legal databases consulted and library use. Results are claimed to be optimistic, in that increased law library expenditure on legal databases has brought widespread use of these new sources. Page 286

For the development of the FLAG-Foreign Law Guide project, carried out under the supervision of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in the UK, a survey was conducted into the needs of academic law librarians and researchers in relation to foreign and international materials14. Research needs resulting from the survey include topics such as the types of legal material requested, the areas of the world to be searched and the methods for obtaining the materials.

The Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in the UK has carried out an investigation15 in order to find out how satisfied readers are with the library collections and information services. The overall satisfaction is high, with good ratings also for the helpfulness of staff, collections (printed and electronic), electronic training sessions and the ease of use of the catalogue. Poor ratings for printing facilities and the availability of computers has been carefully considered by the IALS Library and an upgrading of equipment has already been scheduled.

@@2.2. Characteristics of the questionnaire survey and sample

Preliminary informal focus group interviews were conducted, for this...

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