Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Using the Law Library: A Guide for Educators Part IV: Secondary Sources to the Rescue

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Using the Law Library: A Guide for Educators Part IV: Secondary Sources to the Rescue

Article excerpt


In this, the fourth of six articles, all of the major legal secondary sources are identified as are several ways to get background on education-related laws without using true legal sources. The two main areas of emphasis are: 1) how to use secondary sources to gain a basic understanding of the laws affecting educators; and, 2) how to use secondary sources to access primary source materials (cases, statutes, and regulations) relating to education and school systems.


While the primary sources of the law (federal and state constitutions, legislative enactments, judicial decisions, executive orders, and regulations) determine the legal rights and govern procedures in any particular jurisdiction in the United States, these primary sources can be notoriously complex places to begin legal research, especially for persons who do not use them on a regular basis.1 Often, a researcher will have a reference to a given case, statute or regulation and will want to find that specific document. However, sometimes, researchers are not seeking a specific document, but, instead, want to know the rights or obligations in a certain legal area, such as during the purchase of a home, or want to know the rights and obligations of others.

Over time, publishers have realized that performing legal research by using only primary sources can frustrate even the best researchers. For researchers unfamiliar with a specific area of law or legal research in general, finding primary sources can be extremely difficult. To make research on legal topics easier, a variety of materials that discuss various topics have become available over the years. These materials, collectively referred to as secondary sources, typically do two things.

First, they gather together primary materials in a particular area of law and provide discussion on that topic. This discussion can be very helpful for researchers who have little or no experience in dealing with that specific topic, and can give researchers ideas regarding how to proceed in their research or, in certain situations, may actually answer their questions.

Secondary sources can also be helpful to researchers who already have some familiarity with the topic they are investigating, in that the secondary sources not only comment on the law, but also provide references to primary sources. These references are usually in the form of citations in the footnotes; however, it is also common for primary authority to be cited directly in the text. Once researchers have citations to primary authorities, they can retrieve the primary authority and insure that the secondary source has truly represented the meaning of the statute, case or regulation.2

It is important to always consult the primary sources since secondary sources have some serious drawbacks. Their primary weakness comes from their attempt to make the discussion of an issue easy to understand. In so doing, they often oversimplify the legal concepts involved. In many instances, they may also identify only the way a majority of jurisdictions have decided an issue. This can be dangerous, as it may be completely different from the way the researchers' jurisdictions have treated that issue. Finally, the law of all jurisdictions is constantly in transition. Secondary sources can make it appear that an area of law has hard and fast rules when, in fact, it may not. Identification of these drawbacks is not meant to infer that a researcher should avoid secondary sources, but they should be aware of the drawbacks and be prepared to seek out the primary sources. Always remember that while the secondary source may discuss the law, it is not the law.

Secondary legal sources come in many forms. This guide will attempt to identify the most common forms of secondary source materials, specifically focusing on materials that discuss laws affecting educators and educational institutions. Some materials are designed for lawyers, but can be used by anyone with a little practice, while other materials are designed specifically for non-lawyers. …

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