Despite the whiz-bang answers it can provide with the speed of a silver bullet, legal gray literature remains paradoxically difficult to define, describe and discern.
To start with a near absurdity, how to spell it: Is it gray literature? Or grey literature? Or the form it takes: Is it gray legal literature? Or legal gray literature? Or the place it occupies in our research strategies: Gray who? Gray what? Gray when? Gray where? Gray why?
Silliness aside, these original questions are revelatory because they demonstrate how mystifying legal gray literature is for many info pros.
Indeed, as she points out in her 2015 article for Law Library Journal, “The Elephant in the Room: Toward a Definition of Grey Legal Literature,” federal court law librarian Taryn Rucinski captures the issue succinctly: Legal gray literature “has been overlooked, minimized, and occasionally vilified – when and if it has been acknowledged at all.”
There’s the rub. Legal academicians and scholars may debate the weight, authority and gravitas of gray literature – but practicing law librarians know: therein lies some serious gold.
So, what is it?
In my view, defining legal gray literature begins with what it’s clearly not: statutes, legislative history, rules, regulations, administrative decisions, caselaw, court rules, briefs, pleadings, motions and the host of secondary sources legal professionals cannot live without: dictionaries, encyclopedias, treatises, restatements, hornbooks, law reviews, journal articles, directories, legal news and on and on and on…
If you imagine the above as the bones and organs of the legal literature body, then gray literature is the connective tissue that holds the anatomy together. Seemingly ephemeral, unimportant, even trivial, gray lit binds the system – and oftentimes is a legal researcher’s best friend because of the insights it may deliver.
So, if we know what it’s not, then what precisely is it and, more importantly, where can we find it?
Here are my thoughts on what constitute prime categories of legal gray literature, some examples from each and where to locate them:
Comments and Filings
What: Public comments, advisory letters and other “friend-of-the-proceeding” offerings filed by industry associations, interest groups and citizen activists in a rulemaking process.
Where: Find these online at Regulations.gov and the websites of federal agencies, trade associations and interest groups. For nondigital materials, try an agency’s public reading room or calling up the filer in question for a hard copy version.
Press Releases and News Bulletins
What: Press releases, news bulletins, media advisories, etc., fired off from Capitol Hill offices, administrative bodies, think tanks and everyone else within reach of the Internet.
Where: Check Member websites, the public and/or press affairs pages of relevant websites as well as aggregators of this type of material such as PR Newswire, etc.
What: White papers, technical reports, literature reviews and the entire professional corpus of public policy wonks, serious, semi-serious and otherwise.
Where: Try the open Web, subscription databases, university websites or printed journals and materials at your nearby federal depository library.
Fact Sheets and Scorecards
What: Fact sheets, position papers, scorecards and legislative tick-tocks that fall on D.C. like snowflakes.
Where: Find these on the websites of trade association, lobbyists, Congressional watchers, trade publications and anyone else whose job description calls for subject matter expertise in a particular issue.
What: Talking points pulled from thousands of “Capitol Hill Days” in which associations trot out their members for lobby days, armed with bullet points and factoids to make their respective cases to Members.
Where: Try going directly to the source for these by contacting national trade association reps or, even better, local chapter heads for documentation. The Wyoming state president of the National Association of America’s Feather Weavers, for example, may just have your answer.
Speeches, Lectures and Book Talks
What: Transcripts or recordings of speeches, lectures, book talks and policy roundtables – not on the Hill – but at the National Press Club, the Heritage Foundation, the Center for American Progress, Politics and Prose, and all the places the policy intelligentsia meets.
Where: Chances are whichever hosting entity threw these events have them in some form.
What: Academic output, up to and including peer-reviewed articles, essays, thought leadership pieces, doctoral dissertations, masters’ theses, proposals, conference materials and blogs.
Where: Try universities, colleges, conference or symposia websites, open-access academic journals, like In the Library with the Lead Pipe, professors’ private websites and blogs, etc.
What: Opining from experts and thought leaders on blogs, listservs, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Reddit, etc.
Where: The platforms themselves.
People Around Town
What: Lastly, what you see and hear around town; that is, from the collective body of knowledge that lives in the brains of subject matter experts you encounter every day.
Where: SMEs are everywhere: on the Metro, in your book clubs, softball leagues, church choirs, cooking classes, veterans’ associations, service organizations, etc.
And SMEs are everybody: your college roommates, your beach house landlord, your nephew’s best friend’s grandparents, your Weight Watchers classmates and fellow birdwatchers.
Every human being is a walking store of knowledge and some of it, if shared, falls squarely into the zone of gray literature.
The point is this: Every law librarian encounters – on an almost daily basis – a query answerable only by gray lit. Real-world practitioners, without the luxury of ponderous hours, require an answer and require it fast regardless of where it may originate.
Occasionally, and perhaps often, a data point from legal gray literature may shatter a foggy glass of doubt and bring with it the piercing zing of a silver bullet.
An answer is an answer, a silver bullet a silver bullet, and with that kind of result, who cares if you spell it with an “a” or an “e”?
Dan Odenwald is Principal Research Consultant at Capstone Information Services & Consulting in Washington, D.C. Contact him at email@example.com.