Legal Reference for Public Libraries: Helpful Tools for Legal Reference


The legal world uses many words that are unique to the legal field. It is helpful, when assisting with a legal reference question, to either understand the jargon, or be able to look it up quickly.
Likewise, legal materials have a very specific citation shorthand, used regularly by legal professionals but not as easily recognizable by non-lawyers.

When a patron presents words or citations that look unfamiliar, it is good to have tools at your fingertips to help you identify those odd elements. Once you have identified the material requested, you can actually go find it.

Legal Vocabulary

There are many ways to locate the meaning of a term when used in law, both in print and on the Web.

The most commonly-used legal dictionary is Black's Law Dictionary. Published since 1891 and now in its 10th edition (2014), Black's is often available in general public libraries. Check your library's catalog and reference collection. Black's provides not just definitions, but sometimes references to cases that may further explain a term, which can be helpful if the patron's question is about the term itself.

If you don't have access to Black's, there are any number of other print dictionaries your library may have instead. Additionally, there are a large number of glossaries and vocabulary lists on the Internet that are easily accessible.

Legal Citation Formats

Citation formats can be harder to decode. The best resources to start with are listed here as well as on the Maryland Public Libraries Toolkit:

If, after checking the above, the patron's request is still mystifying, go ahead and call a law library. Law librarians see a wider range of vocabulary and citations, and may recognize that puzzler on sight. If not, law libraries have a wide array of additional resources that may help demystify the situation.

Last revised 03/25/2018