Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research
Teaching Legal Professionals How To Do Research

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 Can We Throw Away the Books Yet?


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase

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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 why.

  • 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 Ipsos.)

  • 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.

  • In 2006, 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 outpaces 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, 2003)

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 in books.

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 skills.

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 today.

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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Created: 7 August 2007
Revised: 9 May 2008 (no text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/print_vs_electronic_research.html

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