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1L Survival Guide: How to Operate a Book

Basic Law Library Survival Information

What Are Annotations?

An annotation is a brief summary, often in condensed form, of the law deduced from cases and statutes.

Annotations point to other, related material on the same point of law.

Annotated statutes or codes include brief summaries of cases that reference the statute.  If a statute or code does not include the word "annotated" in the title, it probably does not include references to cases or other secondary authorities.

A.L.R. annotations follow the text of the case reported and are organized by jurisdiction.


Ruth Ann McKinney, Reading Like a Lawyer: Time-Saving Strategies for Reading Law Like an Expert (Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press, 2005) KF 283 .M39 2005

Strategies for reading law accurately and efficiently in and beyond the law school casebook context.

Basic Book Operation

How to Operate a Reference Book

Since books are the original way we researched the law, and, honestly, not everything is online, it is smart to learn how to operate a book especially if it's been some time since you used reference books.  Nonfiction books often have a Table of Contents and an Index.  Legal research books often are in multi-volume sets.  Using an index to a multi-volume set is crucial to your being able to find what you're looking for in the volumes.  Both the Table of Contents and Index lead you to the content inside the book but in different ways.  You can think of the Table of Contents as an outline.  (Remember this when you have to create an outline for one of your classes.)  The Index functions more or less like a keyword index except that a print index can quickly lead you to a better search term through the Serendipity Factor.

The Serendipity Factor

Serendipity is an unexpected fortunate discovery.

I like to think of this as the placebo effect of research.  You can't get this effect online where you have to know the precise term in order to find what you're looking for.  But say you're reasearching the law on real estate titles or deeds.  From the index in a print publication you notice a lot of references to the term "conveyance" and quickly realize that "conveyance" is a better search term. It probably took less time finding a better search term in print through the Serendipity Factor than it would to open your browser and type in the search terms.

Law Books That Operate Differently

Not all legal reference books work in the simple, straightforward way described above.  Many do, but many add layers to aid in organizing a complex area of law.  Some books you just have to learn how to operate.  I've listed some of them below.  If you have difficulty with any of these sets ask for a librarian at the Circulation Desk. 

TIP:  When all else fails read the instructions in the front of the book.  (It will save you time ultimately.)

DIGESTS.  The Digest System (created by West Publishing) is a topic and key number system.  First you find the topic and second, you find a refinement of the topic in the topic's table of contents. The number associated with the refined topic is called the key number.  Sometimes students mistakenly call this the "Key Number System," but that is not accurate since a key number only exists within a topic. Browse a Digest set and see what else is there.

RESTATEMENTS.  Each Restatement attempts to gather and synthesize the case law on a topic, to organize it, and to present the "rules" distilled from the cases. These "rules" are the American Law Institute's attempt to provide "black letter law" for common law (case law or judge-made law) issues. Each restated subject area is divided into chapters, and further divided into topics and sections; the sections represent the "black letter law." Typical sections contain the rule of law, comments and illustrations used to clarify the rule, and major exceptions to the rule. Since 1976, case annotations appear in Appendix volumes specific to each restated subject area. The Appendix volumes supply case annotations to specific Restatement sections. They include a brief synopsis of the case and its holding, and are conveniently organized by jurisdiction. [Note that appendices are issued by date so there may be several volumes of appendices to check.] The appendices are updated with pocket parts. Restatements are shelved in the Reference Area.

LOOSELEAF SERVICES.  As their name implies, looseleaf publications are in large looseleaf binders.  Looseleaf publications cite relevant cases, state and federal statutes and regulations in a particular area of law.  They are in a looseleaf format to aid in frequent updating (daily, weekly, or monthly) as the law changes.  It pays in time savings to read the instructions in the front of the first volume since each looseleaf publication seems to have its own system.  Looseleafs can be organized by paragraph, section, or page number.  Some have companion volumes. Scan the index and table of contents.  Pay attention to the context. Large publishers of looseleaf services include Matthew Bender, BNA and CCH.  Look for these publishers on the spine of multi-volume sets throughout the collection.

What is a Law Librarian?

For the record, one does not have to have a J.D. to work in a law library, but only a librarian with a J.D. can be called a "law librarian."  In addition to a J.D., law librarians very often have a graduate degree in library and information sciences.  Many law librarians have several advanced degrees. 

Rest assured that when you get research assistance from a law librarian, you are getting qualified help.

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