Margolis and Murray on “Information Literacy”

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One can argue whether technology is evolving faster now than it did five years ago, or ten, or twenty. What we do know is that technology is evolving—that’s what technology does. Those who manage to surf the wave of technological evolution, rather than getting crushed by it, learn principles rather than fixed knowledge. Here’s an example.

As any computer coder will tell you, you don’t learn a computer language. You learn how to learn computer languages. And then you learn lots of computer languages. Very few (no) coders work in just one. Computer languages share principles, and once you’ve learned one language, learning the next can be a matter of hours, or even minutes. You just have to pick your first language.

Enter legal research technology, which, like all technology, has evolved over the past decade. Temple University Law Professors Ellie Margolis and Kristen Murray, in a series of three well-argued articles, have put forward a method for how new lawyers can ride the wave of legal research by learning principles: via “Information Literacy.”

Their first article, “Say Goodbye to the Books: Information Literacy as the New Legal Research Paradigm,” Dayton Law Review, 2013 [SSRN], points out the main difference between the pre- and post-internet research world: “[F]inding is no longer the chief challenge.” We live in a world of “hits”; the new issue is learning how to evaluate them.

Enter information literacy, the “ability to identify what information is needed, understand how the information is organized, identify the best sources of information for a given need, locate those sources, evaluate the sources critically, and share that information.” But what research skills do incoming law students already possess? Margolis and Murray found out: “In order to test and possibly reframe the prevailing assumptions about students’ research skills, we conducted a survey to assess incoming law students’ information literacy and approaches to research.” 

What? Empirical research? Actual data? We’re so delighted. You can read their results in the article and how they proposed to teach information literacy based upon those results.

One note: The American Association of Law Libraries has been pushing information literacy for law students as well. We want to give them their proper due. You can read their position statement, from 2012, here.

Margolis and Murray’s second article, 2014’s “Teaching Research Using an Information Literacy Paradigm,” appeared in Perspectives: Teaching Legal Research & Writing [SSRN]. In it, they talk more about the point of the information literacy approach:

By focusing on information literacy, rather than specific research techniques or finding tools, we can give our students the skills they will need to cope with the ever-changing research environment.

Then, they present a 5-point approach to implementing information literacy in a legal writing classroom, two of which I’ll highlight here: “focus on evaluating, not finding” (as we’ve already established that finding is not the challenge any more), and “move away from linear research plans.” The first of those means that our law students will stop citing Iowa law for South Carolina appellate briefs by accident; the second of those means that students will no longer feel hamstrung when their research works recursively because it’s supposed to work that way.

Basically it comes down to this: If our students only learn better source evaluation and greater comfort with research-plan-uncertainty, we’ll count this change as a huge win.

Margolis and Murray’s third article just came out in 2016: “Using Information Literacy to Prepare Practice-Ready Graduates,” University of Hawaii Law Review [SSRN]. In it, they argue that information literacy is a key to practice-readiness:

While the fundamentals of research and writing are still important, it is time to start broadening our understanding of skills to include the ability to self-learn, to ask the right questions, to evaluate and incorporate new methods into existing skill-sets. The field of information literacy, initially developed as a pedagogical approach to teaching research, offers a new way of looking at skill development to produce practice ready lawyers.

In short, information literacy is (as Margolis and Murray point out) a metacognitive approach to legal research. Students learn the principles, not fixed knowledge, so they can use whatever tools are available, even ones that haven’t been invented yet.

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