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Legal Research: A Guide to Secondary Resources

Secondary resources in the field of law offer analysis, commentary, or a restatement of primary law and are used to help locate and explain primary sources of law. This guide provides an overview of these materials aimed at the beginning legal researcher.

Introduction

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Law Library. Between 1980 and 1990. Lilbrary of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The materials used for legal research are generally divided into two broad categories: primary resources and secondary resources. Primary resources contain laws, orders, decisions, or regulations issued by a governmental entity or official, such as a court, legislature, or executive agency; the President; or a state governor. Secondary resources offer analysis, commentary, or a restatement of primary law and are used to help locate and explain primary sources of law. This guide introduces beginner legal researchers to different types of secondary resources and provides links to resources in the Law Library of Congress's collections and online.

Secondary sources may influence a legal decision but do not have the controlling or binding authority of primary sources. The secondary resources discussed in this guide fall into six major categories:

  1. Definitions (dictionaries with legal terminology and terms defined by law)
  2. Legal Encyclopedias (multi-volume works about many different topics)
  3. Books & Binders (single- or multi-volume works about one particular topic)
  4. Articles (in-depth works about highly specific topics)
  5. Restatements (rules and examples from common law)
  6. Legal Directories (listings of people and organizations)

Secondary Sources: A Great Place to Start

At first glance, it may seem backwards to start your legal research with secondary resources rather than primary resources, but there are good reasons for doing so. Secondary resources are helpful when you are unfamiliar with a topic or area of law and do not know where to start looking for primary sources. They explain basic concepts and cite to primary sources, helping you expand your research, and they help you generate keywords to use when searching through primary resources of law.