Let us say you are looking for materials on Australian law and that you know little or nothing about the subject. Map out a plan before searching (research rule 1).
First, you can search the Library’s OPAC. (Assume the Library owns every book and journal ever published, until you verify on the OPAC that it does not. Doing so can save you time later, as well as save the Library time and money later. See research rule 2.) A basic keyword search for “Australia* law” or “Australia* legal” brings up 255 and 86 hits, respectively. The asterisk (*) is a wildcard and tells the OPAC to bring up all items spelled “Australia” and ending in various ways, such as “Australian” and “Australia’s.” In particular, keep an eye out for research guides and law reviews (research rules 3 and 4). These are great places to start when researching a foreign jurisdiction new to you.
Second, after searching the Library’s print collection you can then search the online collection. A great place to start is Reynolds and Flores’ online subscription database called Foreign Law Guide, which is updated frequently. As a student, you have free access to this database; otherwise, it costs a fee to access it. It covers practically every country in the world and has brief discussions of each one's legal systems followed by information on what legal materials, if any, exist in English translation. After learning what primary and secondary legal materials exist online for Australia, you can try finding them on LexisNexis and Westlaw. Both have Australian legal materials. On LexisNexis, they may be accessed from the “Legal” tab, then scrolling down to “Find Laws by Country or Region,” and then clicking on “Australia.” On Westlaw, they may be accessed by clicking on the “Directory” link at the top center of the screen, then on “International/Worldwide Materials,” then on “Databases Listed Alphabetically by Country or Region,” and then on “Australia.” (For quicker future access, add the “Westlaw International” tab to your tabbed pages. This will save you from having to click on the “Directory” link and then scroll down to the “International/Worldwide Materials” sub-database whenever you want to search for foreign legal materials. [Remember research rule 2!] You can have up to 6 tabbed pages at one time.) HeinOnline is a great place to search for foreign law review articles. Its “Law Journal Library” sub-database has a sub-set of “International and Non-US Law Journals” that is fully searchable as well as viewable and downloadable—unlike LexisNexis and Westlaw—in PDF. And I spotted at least 10 journals published out of Australia by scanning the alphabetical title list under the letter “A.” Chances are they focus exclusively or primarily on Australian law (research rule 3). You may also want to search the Oceana database, which has English translations of 188 constitutions from around the world and expert commentary. After logging in to Oceana Online, click on “Countries of the World . . .,” then the “Browse” button, and then “Australia.” There you will find a plethora of legal and historical documents that may be of interest (again, research rule 3).
Third, after searching the Library’s online collection you can then search the free internet. You may be asking, “Why not search the free internet first?” Well, you can. But if you have access to print and (premium) online collections, then you should look there first because quality control is superior and searchability is generally better. There are, however, some free, reliable websites with foreign legal materials that you can (and should) use. To get up-to-date background and context on Australia, the CIA World Factbook is a great resource. There you will find information on geography, people, government, economy, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues (see research rule 3). To learn more about Australia’s legal system and how to research its laws, visit GlobaLex and Law Library Resource Xchange. Both have scores of articles and research guides written by experts and updated frequently. And both have guides on Australia (research rule 4). To find primary as well as secondary legal materials on Australia, be sure to visit the World Legal Information Institute. It is an independent, nonprofit, collaborative project of smaller such institutes and other global organizations. Clicking on “All Countries” and then “Australia” will reveal what materials are available. There are many and they are fully searchable. Who knows? You may even find materials unavailable on subscription databases, but it is still a good idea to search them first if you have access. Last, you can search Google or Yahoo for an official Australian governmental website. Most, if not all, foreign governments have such websites. They can often be a great place to find information, especially legal information. Australia has one at http://australia.gov.au/ and it has a section called “Law and Justice” with lots of information and related links.
Fourth, you can ask a reference librarian for help if none of the things discussed above yield desired results. Most librarians will be happy to help because they view it as central to what librarians do. But you may not need their help the more knowledgeable and empowered a foreign legal researcher you become. And I guarantee you will become so by practicing the five research rules above.
* Much—perhaps most—foreign law simply does not exist in English translation. So do not be surprised if you cannot find anything. As a general rule, the more foreign investment money is at stake, the greater likelihood a foreign statute will exist in translation. Similarly, it is easier to find translations from developed countries than from developing countries. And finding translated foreign court decisions is often impossible. See Marci Hoffman and Mary Rumsey, International and Foreign Legal Research: A Coursebook (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2008), 21 [Reserves K85. H64 2008].