Google has changed the way everyone researches, including legal researchers.  The universal search box has become ubiquitous in nearly all databases.  It’s also affected the way we fill those boxes.  Natural language searching was in its infancy when I attended law school.  At that time, the focus was on Boolean Searching, also known as terms and connectors.  While Boolean searching is still common, it’s no longer necessity.  Legal databases have become adept at predicting the concepts we are researching and supplying us with the appropriate language.

This is accomplished through a combination of old tech and new tech.  New technology can include advances in programming and artificial intelligence.  The old technology is indexing, also known as structured searching.  Chances are you’ve given little thought to indexing during your time in law school, but understanding how to use indexes can be a powerful tool in your arsenal whether you are writing an article or a court document.

Although I am a legitimate indexing fan, a recent research inquiry reminded me of the importance of indexes and legal bibliography in the time of technology.  Arizona recently passed a law expanding inmate access to fingerprints, firearms, and all the local and national law enforcement databases detectives use right now to solve cold cases.  This follows advancements in state level post-conviction access to DNA evidence, which have led to many exonerations.  Faculty member Keith Findley has written extensively on this topic, you can find his scholarship in our digital repository.  After reading this article, I was interested to know how many other states have similar laws.  I was unable to find similar laws using a simple keyword search, but did learn from the Innocence Project that all 50 states have some type of access to post-conviction DNA testing.

Having recently extolled the virtues of 50 state surveys, I decided to find one on this topic.  Neither Lexis+, Bloomberg, nor HeinOnline had precompiled surveys on the topic, so I turned to Westlaw's Jurisdictional Surveys tool.

However, no matter how I customized my search (by citation, by index term, or by topic), I never received a result featuring the laws of all 50 states, in complete contrast with the information provided by the Innocence Project.  I then accessed Westlaw's bank of 50 State Statutory Surveys.  Here, I was easily able to navigate the table of contents, through criminal laws, to criminal procedure, before finding the on-point survey titled Post-Conviction Relief Through DNA Testing.  This survey confirmed that all 50 states have some type of access to post-conviction DNA testing.

It also re-confirmed a lesson I learned long ago, no matter how well-crafted your keyword search, there is always benefit in double checking using structured searching.  Indexes and tables of contents, compiled by experienced researchers on common topics, provide important comprehensive overviews of topics.  You may uncover cases or information not discovered through keyword searching alone.

Different legal databases have their versions of an indexing tool.  Westlaw's Key Number System is an excellent example of indexing, providing researchers with over 400 topics, each leading the researcher to relevant caselaw.

While Lexis+ offers fewer Topics for researchers, they are intuitively arranged, allowing me to navigate to DNA Testing easily through their "Criminal Law & Procedure" Topic. Cases load automatically, but you can toggle down through all types of materials, including secondary sources and practitioner resources.

There are also indexes to assist researchers in finding both legal and non-legal articles, this libguide is an excellent overview of the journal indexes available.  Indexes can also be invaluable when performing preemption checks, as demonstrated in this libguide.

Want to learn more about indexing or just research in general?  Contact the reference librarians, we're available by phone (608-262-3394), email (askuwlaw@law.wisc.edu), or chat (available on our homepage), or you can reach me directly by email (elizabeth.manriquez@wisc.edu), I’m always happy to chat indexing!

Submitted by Elizabeth Manriquez on May 12, 2021

This article appears in the categories: Law Library

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