Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lives in Law

Whether you’re a would-be law clerk investigating a potential boss’s background, or a history buff who loves to read about law practice in Dickens’s day, there will be times when you need to conduct some biographical research. Fortunately, the Goodson Blogson is here to help.

The library’s research guides to Directories of Courts and Judges and Directories of Lawyers point to many sources of information for currently-practicing judges and attorneys. The amount of information will vary in each source, but most will include basic biographical facts (particularly educational background) and often a summary of career experience and achievements.

Additional information may be available in the general Biography Databases available from the Duke University Libraries. Although these databases do not focus exclusively on law, many notable lawyers and judges (current and historical) are included. Try Biography Resource Center for full-text entries from sources like Who’s Who in American Law and other biographical encyclopedias, or World Biographical Information System (WBIS) to generate an index to biographical sketches in a variety of historical sources.

Did these online sources give you a reference for further reading? You’d be surprised what you can find in the libraries’ catalog. For example, searching WBIS for Duke Law School’s Braxton Craven turns up references to entries in three different print sources, such as Biographical History of North Carolina: from Colonial Times to the Present, an eight-volume set of biographical sketches from the early 1900s which is available in the Perkins library.

If you don’t already have a book title from one of the online sources, you can search the catalog for biographical material in a variety of ways. Particularly notable subjects (such as U.S. Supreme Court justices) will likely have entire books devoted to them-- first try a subject keyword search for the person’s name. Keep in mind, though, that lesser-known subjects might be included in large encyclopedic collections, which will likely not appear when searching the catalog for an individual person’s name (that is, the catalog record doesn’t include the work’s entire index or table of contents). To help find these types of collections, try a subject keyword search for "judges and biography" or "lawyers and biography"; you may also retrieve results with the subject keywords "judges—[state]" or "lawyers—[state]". For best results, try a variety of keyword searches, and also consult the online databases listed above for specific title references.

Newspapers are also valuable biographical research tools. For historical research, obituaries can provide incredible insight into the subject’s life and accomplishments; for living subjects, articles may describe key activities or interests. The New York Times Historical Archive (1851-3 years ago) offers PDFs of countless obituaries and articles; many more recent articles can be accessed right from the Times’ website.

If you still need to dig up more dirt after attempting these strategies, Ask a Librarian!