From the Reference Desk: When Librarians Google

By Lora Johns

Google.pngToday’s post is a reminder that sometimes, even for information professionals, Google really is the answer.

A patron forwarded a Google Alert to the library that linked to an article on India Today. The article reported a ruling from one of India’s High Courts holding that solitary confinement, even for death row prisoners, amounted to torture and violated basic human rights. It runs afoul of the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Nelson Mandela Rules”) and the Constitution of India.

The patron wanted to read the ruling itself. Easy! I thought to myself. I can find that. While I am far from an expert in the law of India, I knew from GlobaLex that Judis would surely contain the ruling I wanted. Off I went to the High Court website and searched by Court and date of judgment.

No dice. What the heck?

Here’s what I knew from the news article:

  • The article about the ruling was published April 27
  • The issuing court was the Uttarakhandi High Court
  • The petitioners were two men sentenced to capital punishment and solitary confinement
  • The justices who wrote the opinion were Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Alok Sing

I tried searching by justice (both names), multiple dates (just in case the article was off)… and still, I found nothing.

Sensing that the task may require an expert rather than a neophyte, I consulted my colleague John Nann, who literally wrote the book on legal research and is more adept at finding obscure Commonwealth case law than any other human being alive. Half an hour later, like magic, the ruling materialized in my inbox and the patron’s.

Rather awed, I asked John how he executed this feat of librarianship, when even the official court website was useless. I felt a tiny bit less self-critical once he said he’d followed the same research path that I had, without luck — except that he had additionally consulted SCC Online, “India’s premier legal database,” which also had no trace of the ruling.

So John — the consummate reference librarian par excellence — turned to Google. Pulling key terms from the India Today article, John added a twist that, in its simplicity, betrayed sheer genius. He added the word “judgment” to the Google search.

When I recreated his research trail (partly because I wanted to read the judgment, partly to practice being a better reference librarian for next time), Google immediately gave me another news article, published on LiveLaw.in. Its headline proclaimed, Solitary Confinement of a Death Convict Before the Exhaustion of His Complete Legal and Constitutional Remedies Unconstitutional: Uttarakhand HC [Read Judgment].

Published two days after the judgment issued, the article had embedded a PDF of the court’s judgment at the end. Success at last!

What are the takeaways of this story?

  • Sometimes, the “right,” librarian-y methods are not necessarily the best or fastest path to an answer. I would have saved time if I’d tried Googling first. In fairness to me and John starting with more specific sources, it’s still a mystery why both the High Court website and the paid database both lacked this important judgment.
  • Google pays software engineers full-time salaries to design the best and brightest search algorithms. There is no shame in using them. (With the caveat, of course, that we must acknowledge that algorithms are as prone to bias as any human.)
  • I have brilliant, patient, and kind colleagues who invite me to reach out to them for help and generously lend me a hand when I need it. Especially as a baby librarian, I am grateful for the mentorship and guidance, and I hope to pay it back someday when I’m older and wiser.
  • I will be bookmarking in and following Apoorva Mandhani, the reporter who wrote the story, on Twitter to keep up-to-date with developments in Indian courts. Who knows when it may come in handy?

2 responses to “From the Reference Desk: When Librarians Google

  1. Pingback: Celebrating One Year of Weekly Content on DipLawMatic Dialogues! | DipLawMatic Dialogues

  2. Pingback: Top 18 Posts of ’18 | DipLawMatic Dialogues

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