Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research
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Determine Where to Conduct Research (Internet vs. the Library)

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Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


1 March 2002. A site visitor writes:

Is there any kind of research that is better done in the library than on the Internet? For instance, can you use the Internet to locate abstracts of articles in scholarly journals, or is it better to check a database at a good library?

I doubt that many librarians would dispute the value of the Internet in research. It provides access to numerous reputable free or low-cost databases, journals, books, reports, and other publications as well as to many important commercial resources. Oftentimes, the Internet serves as the sole source of information, or offers the shortest path to an answer.

Conversely, libraries house mounds of materials that are not digitized, and likely never will be at least, not in my lifetime. Libraries give patrons access to databases that sometimes would be otherwise unavailable, or available at a significantly higher cost. Libraries also may provide a greater number of authoritative resources in certain subjects.

Determining whether the Internet or a library presents a better research environment depends on at least three factors:

  1. Source availability. Which provides credible accessible sources that answer the question?

  2. Research skills. Can the researcher find and use the available sources?

  3. Use of the information. How will the researcher use the information that results from the research?

Consider this example: An undergraduate seeks scholarly articles about a current issue in psychology for a term paper. Both the Internet and academic libraries offer at least one worthy resource -- PsycINFO, a database of bibliographic citations and abstracts to literature in the field of psychology. A student may, or may not, deem it accessible when he discovers he has to pay for its use via the Internet. But, if the student wants to pay to access the database, and knows (or learns) how to search it well enough to retrieve relevant abstracts, and then meets the requirements of the assignment using the information he finds, then the Internet at least provides as good a research environment as a library.

But what if the researcher were a doctor investigating the adverse effects of a drug intended for use in a medical study? Both the Internet and medical libraries offer useful resources. Medical libraries undoubtedly provide resources beyond the number and scope of those available on the Internet. Is this important?

What about the research skills of the doctor? Is searching the pertinent databases well enough to retrieve relevant abstracts, as in the previous example, sufficient? Or does the outcome -- the use of the information -- demand proficiency?

Last year, a Johns Hopkins medical researcher failed to uncover published information about the potentially fatal side effects of the drug, hexamethonium, when inhaled. Consequently, a young woman participating in an asthma study, died.

Because the doctor accessed databases available in the medical library as well as on the Internet, source availability did not influence the outcome. Did he possess the search skills necessary to retrieve essential abstracts from the databases? Did he misjudge the significance of that which he read?


I have no answers -- only a suggestion. Before deciding whether to conduct research in a library or on the Internet, ask yourself: "How important is the answer?" If you want to meet the requirements of an assignment -- earning perhaps a better than average grade -- then, by all means, experiment. Test your search skills on the Internet, or in a library. But if the answer is a matter of life or death, recognize your limitations. Not too many people are both subject and research experts.


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Created: 1 March 2002
Revised: 27 November 2007 (archived with text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/internet_or_library.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com