Using LibGuides to Help Teach First-Year Contracts

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By Jesse Bowman
October 31, 2013

At this point in time, it is no secret that LibGuides by Springshare is an affordable and user-friendly platform for showcasing a law library’s resources. Indeed, LibGuides helps transform the traditional paper research guide into a multimedia-rich, visually attractive website and does so while demanding little knowledge of web design. Moreover, as detailed by Melanie Cofield and Kasia Solon in their excellent article, “Making the Most of LibGuides in Law Libraries: How can law libraries leverage LibGuides?” AALL Spectrum, March 2012, the platform offers intriguing possibilities apart from assisting patrons. These possibilities include creating guides for staff training, having students add content to a guide as a course project, and even using the platform to manage a law school’s web content. In this article, I will follow the lead of Cofield and Solon and discuss another potential use of LibGuides, one which has been implemented at Valparaiso University Law School during fall 2013: using LibGuides to support the teaching of a first-year, doctrinal law course. 

Valparaiso’s Experience

This fall, all three sections of our law school’s first-year contracts course are being taught from a LibGuide shared between our contracts faculty. Through the guide, students are able to access every resource they need to complete the course. Specifically, they are able to download court opinions edited by their professors, access links to the Restatement (Second) of Contracts on WestlawNext and links to the Uniform Commercial Code on Cornell’s Legal Information Institute site, download reading questions and practice exams, find links to CALI lessons, and even read blog postings updated via an RSS feed. Furthermore, the guide serves as a portal to relevant law library resources, as it includes holdings information for print treatises and study aids, as well as direct hyperlinks to titles included in Westlaw’s Study Aids Subscription. This streamlined destination for our first-year students was, in fact, a concept several months in the making.

At Valparaiso Law, “Works in Progress” sessions are held on several Wednesday afternoons throughout the semester. During these sessions, a faculty member volunteers to present a draft of a paper they are working on and receive feedback from their colleagues. Last March, I volunteered and gave a brief presentation on the LibGuides platform at one of these sessions. In advance of the session, I created a sample LibGuide titled “Constitutional Law I” and embedded a variety of multimedia content, such as a video of Sonia Sotomayor’s appearance on The Colbert Report, an RSS feed of podcasts by Supreme Court Review, and an RSS feed of Constitutional Law Prof Blog. I also included links to both practice exams and relevant research databases. The basic premise of my presentation was that a LibGuide could be used to supplement traditional, in-class instruction with digital resources available through both the law library and external sites. Most importantly, perhaps, I emphasized that I would be willing to create a guide for anyone who was interested.

My audience seemed engaged, but, as is typically the case, it was difficult to predict whether my proposal would gain any traction. However, a few weeks later, one of our first-year contracts professors, Jeremy Telman, stopped by my office and mentioned that he was considering teaching his contracts course entirely from a LibGuide. He was particularly frustrated with the exorbitant cost of textbooks and was already in the habit of providing his students with extensive supplemental materials. Although I had never envisioned using LibGuides for such a comprehensive purpose, Telman’s idea made sense. Indeed, I could easily upload edited court opinions through our WordPress interface and then insert hyperlinks to the documents into the LibGuide. Moreover, through their Westlaw credentials and the free web, students already have access to the Restatement (Second) of Contracts and the Uniform Commercial Code. The LibGuide could simply act as a bridge to these resources. Before the end of the spring semester, I met with Telman and our other first-year contracts professor, Mark Adams, to discuss logistics. We agreed on a basic structure for the LibGuide, and the professors provided me with a list of cases, broken into categories, that they would edit and then send to me for uploading. With this information in hand, I assembled the LibGuide throughout the summer months.

Fast-forward more than three months and our “First-Year Contracts” LibGuide is up and running, having received more than 4,000 views in less than two weeks. Feedback from the contracts professors suggests that the LibGuide is accomplishing several goals. First, it is allowing the faculty to teach the exact material they wish to present. Both professors indicated that they occasionally disagree with the way casebook authors choose to edit court opinions. Now, they are able to present cases exactly as they like, and, if they disagree on which language from an opinion should be included, they can each create a unique version to be added to the LibGuide. Second, the LibGuide is saving the students a great deal of money, likely close to $200 when combining the costs of a textbook and supplement containing the Restatement (Second) of Contracts and the Uniform Commercial Code. Third, it is engaging students where they already spend a great deal of their time: in the digital environment. Specifically, students can read cases and other materials directly on their laptops and tablets and can add annotations using a keyboard or stylus. Finally, it is an eco-friendly means of presenting a substantial amount of content. Indeed, even if some of the students print out physical copies of the materials, a great deal of paper is being conserved.

In addition to the benefits provided to both the contracts professors and their students, I believe this project has also been beneficial for the law library. First, it has increased our interaction with the law faculty and further evinced the value that we can provide in terms of instructional support. Moreover, the fact that this LibGuide is required viewing for students likely means that our other LibGuides, which are accessible through the breadcrumb navigation at the top of each page, will see an increase in traffic. Finally, and simply put, creating this LibGuide has allowed for creativity, which is sometimes absent from traditional legal research projects.

Optimistic About the Future

In closing, I am fortunate to work with law faculty who are receptive to my ideas and proactive in their attempts to connect with students, and I recognize that this environment is far from ubiquitous within and across institutions. However, my hope is that this article will help readers build a case for similar projects at their own institutions. Although the semester is young and students’ evaluations have not yet been submitted, I am optimistic that we, the law librarians and law faculty, have devised an effective and novel way of teaching a very old subject.

Jesse Bowman (jesse.bowman@valpo.edu), Digital Services Librarian and Assistant Professor of Law Librarianship, Valparaiso University Law Library, Valparaiso, Indiana