Gaps in International Legal Literature

By Louis-Jacques, Lyonette | Chicago Journal of International Law, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Gaps in International Legal Literature

Louis-Jacques, Lyonette, Chicago Journal of International Law


Once upon a time in Minnesota, a student approached a neophyte foreign and international law librarian, and asked for legal resources on the rights of gays in the military in Europe. After much searching, the librarian found hardly any publications written on the topic in any language. That challenging (yet wondrous) quest for resources taught the librarian a very important lesson. When little is published on an area of law, it is very difficult to research that area. And if you do find literature to fill such a gap, make a note of it. And then tell the world!

I was that young librarian, and this article is my attempt to tell the world about some of the gaps in the foreign and international law literature that I have observed throughout the years. These observations are derived not only from reference questions, but also from my review of research tools, publishers' catalogs, bibliographies, footnote references, and other materials that have crossed my desk. While I have scanned the literature in selecting materials to build foreign, comparative, and international law collections at two institutions (Minnesota and Chicago), I have done no systematic search. Still, I think those who read the literature on a regular basis would confirm most of my impressions.

Part II of this article addresses the problem of finding translations of primary legal sources. Part III details the gaps in, and inadequacies of, international legal research resources. And in Part IV, I bemoan the dearth of literature on certain topics and the underrepresentation of particular viewpoints in the scholarship on foreign, comparative, and international law.


"As the world, in effect, grows smaller and as international trade and social, commercial and cultural exchange increases almost exponentially, lawyers and scholars in one jurisdiction or of one legal system must seek information from, or about, another."1 For monolingual researchers in the United States, finding foreign legal information in English can be extremely difficult:

The day comes when one must search for bankruptcy laws in Greece or banking laws of the Cayman Islands or initiate an interlibrary loan request for the Bolivian civil code. At this point, one begins to appreciate the difficulty of foreign legal research and, at the same time, there dawns an apprehension of the enormous, diverse and casually controlled range of foreign legal materials. In all likelihood, once this first awkward prospect is negotiated, the researcher will be troubled with a sequence of other serious questions. These queries stem from our fairly insular background as ' North Americans": is this material easily available; is it in English or, failing that, in what we might consider an "accessible language (such as French or German); is the dusty version of the Argentine penal code we've located still current and reliable?2

The needs of a transnational lawyer might differ from those of a law professor or student in that the latter may have a choice as to which foreign laws to read. Because of the general awkwardness in conducting foreign legal research, the choice of what country's law to compare with that of the U.S. may depend on which languages the researcher can read or which translations he or she can readily access. Academic researchers need translations of non-English primary and secondary legal materials to expand the range of their comparisons beyond English-speaking common law countries to studying countries with civil, religious, or mixed legal systems. Comparative legal studies have more limited value when the systems compared come from closely similar cultures. Improved access to English translations of foreign and international legal materials will facilitate greater exploration of different legal systems to energize the field of comparative law.

At present the most indispensable resource for finding translations of primary legal materials is Foreign Law: Current Sources of Codes and Basic Legislation in Jurisdictions of the World ("Foreign Law").

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