7 August 2007. In a meeting the other day,
someone asked if I agreed with the general
sentiment that research materials were going
electronic. He explained that he thought
print as a medium was losing ground. And
assuming his suppositions were true, he
expressed concern that those who continue to
conduct research primarily through the books
would soon become inefficient, costly and
possibly, negligent researchers.
I'm delighted that law firm management is
thinking about research resources and
methodology. It has always been
important. Information is the foundation on
which lawyers build a case or advise their
clients. But in the past, the act of
gathering, assessing and analyzing
information hasn't always received the
attention it deserves.
Is print losing ground? While it's
true that more information originally
available only in print is coming online,
and publishers/producers are creating
unfathomable amounts of new information
electronically, it's premature for law firms
to do away with some of their print collections.
If you examine information industry
statistics, you will begin to understand
According to a
study conducted by the University of California
at Berkeley, there were 2,078,051
commercial book titles available for sale in March
2003 in the U.S. (The study's source for this number
is Books in Print.)
Taking into account
commercially produced book titles then not-in-print,
there were a total of 4,123,094 book titles in the
U.S. in March 2003. (Berkeley, 2003)
The above statistics do not
take into account printed government documents, out-of-print
titles not appearing in Books in Print or in-print
works published outside of the U.S.
U.S. consumers purchased
about 1.62 billion books in 2001. (See the
full Berkeley report. Berkeley's source is
According to the 2005/2006
annual report of the Association of American
Publishers, book sales totaled $25.1 billion in
2005, an increase of 9.9 percent over 2004.
net sales fell a bit totaling $24.2 billion.
Interestingly, "[e]-books saw a 24.1% increase in
2006 at $54 million, with a compound growth rate of
65% since 2002."
Net sales in 2007 are up by 7.9 percent. "Sales
in the Professional and Scholarly category posted an
increase of 7.4 percent in June ($66.1 million);
sales were up 7.1 percent for the year."
Thus, while the amount
of new information produced electronically
print, the extent to which we publish
and purchase books is significant. In fact,
the second most prevalent source of print
information in the U.S. is books and not
newspapers or magazines. (Berkeley,
Are book researchers a dying
breed? Sadly, the answer probably is yes. But is it
sad because we stand to lose a format that has certain
strengths for research purposes - user-friendly design,
index and table of contents you can browse, greater
permanence, many uses for a single price - or is it sad
because we know and understand it, and now we have to
learn something new?
There is no question that the
book format is desirable in research. However, those who
desire it generally comprise older (+40) generations. If
given the choice of accessing a treatise online or in
print, many within this age group will pick the latter.
But by the same token, many in
this age group will conduct case law research online.
Why the apparent discrepancy?
Whereas certain primary research
materials in law have been available online in the U.S.
since the late 1970s, and whereas developments have made
them easier and faster to use, commercially published
secondary materials are still maturing electronically.
Researchers adept both with the subject matter and the
online format may use them efficiently, and even
economically, but this comprises a relatively small
group of people.
So what's a law firm library
to do? The question for law firm management, then,
is not whether you convert to an all- or
mostly-electronic library, but when. Firms whose
practices demand the availability of significant
treatise collections or whose lawyers comprise a fair
number over the age of 40, will do better to wait.
If you convert now, not only
will you lose some information - some necessary
treatises will be available only in print - you'll lose
efficiency, economy and productivity. Those with subject
knowledge will have to depend on those with a lesser
subject expertise to conduct research, or they will have
to learn to navigate proficiently in the new
environment. Those with electronic research skills but
little subject knowledge may not know enough to be aware
of what they might miss.
Are book researchers better
or worse? The information industry, and thus those
who depend on it, is in a period of transition. Some
needed information is not available online, or it isn't
economical to access it. Some lawyers are not adept
online, or they are skilled only in certain types of
online research. They find relevant information faster
Similarly, much information is
available in multiple formats. Clients will pay for
traditional research, but often not for research
conducted online. What this calls for is balance both in
the availability of research materials and in research
The bottom line, today.
New lawyers, who for the most part have grown up with
the explosion of electronic information, often miss
relevant information because they lack research skills.
But if the proficiency of the 40+ generations was
greater at the same stage in their career, it is likely
because the research tools they used were fewer; and
mostly, they were tangible. Then, information overload
did not have the significant and lasting impact it has
If the practices and research
skills of lawyers in your law firm warrant waiting out
this transition period, there are a few things you can
do to ease the pain:
Evaluate the use of the
print collection. The availability of multiple
publishing formats means there is redundancy. If
primary materials, in particular, still occupy
physical space, weigh the cost of maintaining them
against the cost of educating those who use them
about alternate research methods.
Partner skilled researchers
with new lawyers. Because of the amount of
information available today, the number of access
choices, and the limited subject knowledge of a new
lawyer, it likely will take several years to develop
adequate legal research skills. Regular opportunity
to observe and practice research is essential.
Within reason, allow for
experimentation. New information channels develop at
a much faster pace today. Consider channels that
have come to light in just the past 10 years - chat
(AOL, 1997), streaming multimedia (RealPlayer,
1997), peer-to-peer file sharing, blogs, RSS and
podcasts. Through experimentation, you will discover
new, and sometimes better, ways of delivering
information. (For example, by using instant
messaging - or IM-like software - you can deliver
real-time reference service and on-demand
information to lawyers or clients beyond your
immediate physical location.)
Because we are in a period of
transition, there will be strengths and weaknesses in
groups that depend primarily on one research method -
electronic or print - over another. The key to mastering the
transition is in finding balance. Few people can be both
subject experts and expert researchers.
Thus, law firms should take
advantage of the strengths of both groups. You depend on
the knowledge of sources and traditional research skills
that adept book researchers possess. Likewise, you need
the technical know-how and newer search methods of the
online researchers. By encouraging the skills of both groups, you create
the optimum environment for research for the times.
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