Monday, June 13, 2005

Print vs. Digital: Debate Continues Over Teaching Legal Research

There is an interesting ongoing discussion about how to teach legal research in the pages of AALL Spectrum, the journal of the American Association of Law Libraries.

What got the ball rolling was an article entitled "Out of the Jungle" in the February 2005 issue by James Milles, director of the law library and associate professor at the University of Buffalo Law School. To summarize, Milles argues that digital has won and librarians and legal research instructors should get over it: the primary focus of teaching legal research skills should be online research.

Well, of course, many people disagreed, and the June 2005 issue of AALL Spectrum included a few responses, including an article called "Elevating Form Above Substance" by Joan Shear, legal information librarian and lecturer at Boston College Law Library.

While agreeing with Milles about the flexibility and precision that come from online resources, she countered that good legal researchers "also have the experience to know when online searching will not be as effective as consulting a print source."

She also argues that the fact that a younger generation of law students is more familiar with the Net and databases (offered to them at law school free of charge by large commercial vendors) does not make them immune from poor searching or thinking. It also does not help them understand the diversity of information out there, its structure (or lack thereof on the open Internet), when to go to different sources, and when print is not only the better tool for a task, but maybe the only one.

As she writes, "(E)ven when told that a specific piece of information they are looking for is easier to find in print, many students today refuse to believe that it isn't all out there electronically."

The summer law students arrived a few weeks ago where I work, and it was apparent during the initial training sessions that they expected everything to be electronic. When we took them through some basic legislative history exercises that could only be answered using print sources, the look of amazement and disbelief on their faces was a sight to see.

The point is not that print is better or worse than digital, since most agree that they both complement each other. It may be, as Shear contends - and as my experience has taught me - that the mental habits and research methods older searchers learned using print resources (in combination with specialized, heavily structured databases) are useful because they help think about and play with the structure of information, which is based on the old library science ideas of indexing, classification, subject headings, categorization, metadata etc. Quite a few students (and lawyers) just throw keywords into Google or Quicklaw or Lexis and hope for the best.

Or as, Shear concludes, the print vs. online debate "misses the point", because we need "to concentrate less on the wrapper and more on the information contained therein."

Even if that means occasionally convincing, enticing, cajoling or forcing some 22-year old student to leaf through the print indexes to the Canada Gazette, Part II or through the tables of amendments and proclamations of the Revised Statutes of Ontario of 1950, because there ain't no other way to find the answer for some things.

For a good presentation of the pro and con arguments about print and digital legal resources, I would suggest an article by Michelle Wu, Why Print and Electronic Resources Are Essential to the Academic Law Library, in Law Library Journal, v.97, no.2, Spring 2005, 233-256. This is followed in the same issue by a fairly substantial bibliography on the topic Do We Still Need Books: A Selected Annotated Bibliography, that includes annotated listings of relevant books articles published since 1995 as well as Internet sources.

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posted by Michel-Adrien at 6:52 pm

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