Library Catalogs • Et. Seq: The Harvard Law School Library Blog

Thoughts on Library Research Guides

Since I came back to the law library from my professional development leave, I have been looking at and thinking about the research guides I have written here.  (You can view the list of them.)  I was never formally trained on writing research guides.  I learned a little bit about them, conceptually, in library school, but mainly I have developed my own process and style by just doing them.

I think my philosophy about research guides has changed a little over the years.  In the past, I thought that bigger is definitely better.  Certainly the guides that I have done for German Law Research and Alternative Dispute Resolution Research are quite broad in terms of the number of topics covered and number of resources referenced.  Those guides generate a lot of interest in terms of traffic and hits, not just from Harvard but from all over the world.  People clearly find them helpful on some level.

However, I seem to be shifting a bit toward preferring to write smaller guides on narrower topics.  Like every librarian, I have a unique set of interests, strengths, and favored research techniques, and I think my guides should reflect those.

I am also thinking about how to maximize the utility of the guides that I write for Harvard Library users.  The Harvard Library has over 17 million volumes across all its libraries’ collections.  That’s a lot!  Many of the physical books and journals in the collection are stored off-site and cannot be physically browsed on the Harvard campus by library users.

In addition, our library catalog, HOLLIS, has been evolving over the last few years, as are catalogs at other academic libraries.  What I’ve been hearing about user feedback related to academic library catalogs is that people want a one-stop shop that delivers books and periodical articles, with a Google-like single-box search interface.  Of course a catalog that is set up like this makes quick searches easier.  However, it also might make it more difficult to dive deeply into a very nuanced scholarly topic, to maximize the relevancy of search results, and to find all the relevant materials in the collection, especially if users do not know very much about advanced searching.

The bottom line for me: I think it’s important to help library users where they are, and where many of them are is online, maybe even on their phone, looking for the fastest and easiest way to find the exact library materials they need.  And who can blame them for that?  If research is arduous and frustrating, then it’s not fun.  As someone who loves research, I hate the thought of that!

So the last two guides I have written for the law library have been very much of a “niche” variety.  For each of these guides, I took a smaller topic and wrote a guide describing, on a single web page with lots of links, the best options that I know to use to research it.

One of these new guides, Organized Crime in Italy, was written after I worked with a student who is doing some research in this area.  I have to admit I am more than a little fascinated with this topic.  I also wanted the opportunity to practice working with Italian-language resources.  Of course, in writing this guide, I am not doing the student’s research for her, but I am suggesting options that are available to her, based on my experience as a researcher here at Harvard.

The other guide I wrote recently is Resistance to the National Socialist Government in Germany.  This was also in created in response to a research area in which one of our users is interested.  As the library’s expert in German law, and because the Harvard Library has so many relevant materials on this subject, this was too important a guide for me not to spend my time on.

As for the contents of the guides themselves, anyone who looks at my guides will see immediately how much I love Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) as an indexing instrument.  I always include links to pre-populated HOLLIS searches by subject, using controlled LCSH vocabulary, in my guides.  This is the surest way I know to find relevant books on a subject, regardless of publication language.

Writing a research guide is, in my experience as a research librarian, the best and most rewarding way to learn about a topic and about optimal research techniques.  But it is definitely more important that a guide is readable and useful to the researchers who are looking for help on how research should be done at your library.  Going forward, I will continue to work toward that as my primary goal.

Another Option for Finding Library Materials by Subject

I have written before in this blog about using the Hollis library catalog to find materials in the law library by subject.

Specifically, I find the Hollis catalog’s hyperlinked Library of Congress (LC) Subject Headings to be a great way to discover what the libraries at Harvard have on a particular topic, especially if I’m looking for materials in multiple languages.

I recently learned more about a subject-based classification system that is used in many German academic libraries, the Regensburger Verbundklassifikation (RVK) system. This system was developed by the library at the University of Regensburg in the 1960s.

As with LC Call Numbers, the RVK system assigns letters to subjects. However, where law books are given a call number that starts with “K” under the LC system, the RVK system uses the letter “P” for call numbers for legal materials.

There is a wonderful RVK directory and search engine that is freely available through the internet: RVK Online. Although it is all in German, it is intuitive enough to use even if you don’t know the language well.

On the homepage of this site, there is a collapseable list of subjects. To view the subtopics under law, you would click the plus-sign next to Rechtswissenschaft (Legal Sciences).


Next, keep collapsing the list until you find the subject you want.  For example, if you are interested in researching the history of criminal law in the German states, you would click Rechtswissenschaft > Strafrecht, Strafverfahrensrecht, Kriminologie > Allgemeines und Geschichte > Geschichte > Deutsche Länder.

Once you have clicked down to a designated subject, a menu will appear on the right side of the screen. There is a row of blue buttons under the text of the subject you have selected. You can use these buttons to search for materials on this subject in German-language library consortia catalogs. (Suche = Search)

  • BVB – Library consortium of the state of Bavaria
  • GVB – Library consortium of the states of Bremen, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Niedersachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Schleswig-Holstein, Thüringen
  • SWB – Library consortium of the state of Baden-Württemberg
  • OVB – Library consortium of Austria


If, on the above screen, you were to click Suche in SWB, you would see a search results list of 288 items available in the libraries of Badem-Württemberg, listed chronologically, newest first. (Note: I personally find the SWB catalog to be very strong in legal materials.)

The first book in this list is a 2014 conference publication about the work of Feuerbach, a late-17th century German legal scholar whose major work was to reform the Bavarian criminal code.


If you are interested in the history of criminal law in Bavaria, you will probably want to read this book. Of course, if you are not in Germany, you’re wondering if any U.S. libraries have this book so that you can borrow it.

This is easy enough to find out. Click the record in the SWB catalog, and look for the book’s ISBN number, a 13-digit code that starts with “978.”

Then, use that code to search for the book in the worldwide library catalog WorldCat ( There is an option to search WorldCat by ISBN.

If you do this, you will see that several North American libraries (include the HLS Library!) own this book.


Although there is not a lot that has been written about the RVK system in languages other than German, there are lists of selected subjects (including those under the “P” legal sciences class) translated into both English and Italian. These lists are available at

The RVK system provides researchers with another option for finding library materials by subject. It might be easier to use this RVK system for certain types of research than to try to search a library catalog by keyword, especially if you are unfamiliar with the language used to discuss the topic in the scholarly literature.

I know that this is a resource that I am very happy to have learned about, and one that I will always use in my searches for German law materials in the future.


%d bloggers like this: