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Law Research Guide: Encyclopedias

This guide is an introduction to legal research for undergraduate students.

Accessing Legal Encyclopedias

AmJur is available in Westlaw.

Both the WMU and the Kalamazoo Public Library have print volumes of one or both major sets of encyclopedias.

AmJur:

WMU Waldo Library, Reference
KF154 .A4 1962

KPL Law Library (Central, Lower level)
LAW 347.06 A51213

CJS:

WMU Waldo Library, Reference
KF154 .C6x

About Encyclopedias

Legal encyclopedias are secondary sources which provide a general overview of almost every legal subject.  The two major sets of legal encyclopedias are American Jurisprudence 2d (a/k/a "AmJur") and Corpus Juris Secundum (a/k/a "CJS").  Both sets contain over 100 volumes, arranged alphabetically by topic, and both include a general index (also comprising several volumes) for the entire set, which you can find after the last volume.  As with other secondary sources, legal encyclopedias summarize the law rather than provide the law itself. 

Legal encyclopedia articles can be very useful if you are beginning to research an unfamiliar area of the law - they are a great source for finding a brief review of the law and some the key terminology in the area, which can in turn help you create better online keyword searches.  In addition, like any other secondary source, they contain copious references and citations to primary source materials. However, legal encyclopedias are not intended to be authoritative sources of the law; therefore they generally should not be cited in court documents or in scholarly articles.

How to Use

When using a legal encyclopedia, it is best to start by searching for your terms in the index volumes (at the end of the set) rather than in the main volumes.  This is an important step because the main volumes are arranged alphabetically by major topic (e.g. in both AmJur and CJS, the subject "Miranda Warnings" is covered under the topic "Criminal Law").  You should also be prepared to think of alternate terms (e.g. "physicians" instead of "doctors").  Once you find the topic in the index, it will refer you to a topic and section number where you can find the text of the article (e.g. CrimLaw §914).  Next, look on the spines of the volumes to see which one contains the section you are looking for.

In either set, once you find the volume that contains your article, you will note that it includes a brief explanatory paragraph summarizing the law with footnotes that cite to primary sources (mostly cases) that support the statements of law.  Also, note that at the beginning of each major topic (before the articles) you will find a complete outline of the topic (sometimes it helps to browse this outline to find the most helpful article and to place your sub-topic into a broader context), as well as the scope of the topic (i.e. what the topic covers and does not cover) and subjects that are treated elsewhere (cross-references to other related topics not within the scope of the selected topic).

After reading the article, it is important that you update your research.  Usually, the main volume will contain a pocket part (a pamphlet inserted into a pocket in the back of the volume).  Consult this pocket part to find the newest materials related to your topic, using the same topic and section number you searched in the main volume - note that if your section number is not listed, there are no updates.  Occasionally, there is too much material for a packet part to fit inside the main volume.  In that case, you will find updates in a soft-bound supplement shelved next to the main volume, but the technique for finding updates is the same.  You can also use the online versions of the encyclopedia to ensure that your updating is complete.

Comparing AmJur and CJS

The two major legal encyclopedia sets are substantially similar.  They are structured the essentially the same format, and since both are published by West publishing they include references to Topics and Key Numbers from the West Digest System.  In addition, both contain references to relevant American Law Reports annotations and to other secondary sources. A couple of points of comparison:

1. CJS claims to be comprehensive in its case citations, while AmJur only cites selected cases.

2. AmJur includes more of an emphasis on federal statutory citations than CJS.  However, each volume in both sets includes a "Table of Laws and Rules" which lists citations to articles discussing U.S. statutory and constitutional sections, federal regulations, and model rules.

How to Cite

While you generally will not cite to a legal encyclopedia, Rule 15.8 of The Bluebook (19th edition) covers how to do so.  The following examples are included in this Rule:

88 C.J.S. Trial § 192 (1955).

17 Am. Jur. 2d Contracts § 74 (1964).

The components of the citation are, in order:  the number of the encyclopedia volume (from its spine); the abbreviated name of the encyclopedia; the topic and section number of the article; and the copyright date of the volume, which can be located on the reverse side of its title page.

See also Basic Legal Citation from the Legal Information Institute.