Article on Print vs. Electronic Research

RSS feed notwithstanding, it has been a while since I have spent some time on one of my all-time favourite legal research sites, The Virtual Chase, written by the amazing Genie Tyburski at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll LLP. I must visit more often. An interesting article by Genie from a couple of weeks ago poses the question “Can We Throw Away the Books Yet?“. As she explains in the article, the query flows from the premise suggested by a colleague that “…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.” She reviews the numbers and her thoughts and conclusions are interesting. Whereas the growth of availability of electronic information clearly outpaces that of print, publication and purchase of print information remains significant. However, she notes, not surprisingly, that print researchers may be a dying breed. Her recommendations:

  • 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.)


  1. Uhu ? So, as I wrote previously in a comment to another post here, you’re no longer a good librarian or lawyer if you don’t do all your research online ?

    The content or what contains it — which is more important ? The speed with which you get the information is no doubt very important in our information society age, that’s right, and that depends on the container. But I know very experienced lawyers who don’t like and don’t use digital research who go to the paper library and get the right book and exit more quickly than some younger lawyers who are very skilled at doing online research. And just today a 4-year experienced associate aks me for some references in French law reviews : I found once again that we were quicker in getting the print versions and photocopying them than in searching and printing them online. So ?

    There are a lot of jurisdictions where paper rules and/or where the bosses prefer paper, you know ?

    And about the immediate messaging software, RSS etc. — which I know and have been using for quite some time but at a slow rate : it’s all very well if you have some time to read and answer the growing number of messages (there already are the 100 or so e-mails per day, you know ?) — that is, provided you don’t work 15 hours per day.

    I generally sum up my views on the paper/print/online debate with the classic Robert Palmer song title — ” ‘ Takes every kind of people to make the world go round”. I for one prefer to take the best of both worlds — the paper/print one and the online one. Details are here (in French) :
    Papier contre numérique ou papier avec numérique ?

  2. Emmanuel, I don’t think there are many around Slaw that will debate the fact that there are times when paper sources are required. Or that some lawyers will prefer paper because that’s what they understand and trust. However, the simple fact remains that our sources are moving towards electronic, and that paper is simply *fitting* less and less.

    The bigger problem I see is the lack of coverage, especially on retrospective collections. Where budgets have allowed for electronic conversion of certain materials, and that conversion process has stopped at a certain date and does not include the entire collection. As you say, it doesn’t matter where you get the content, just that you can get it.

    Your comparison of a savvy paper researcher to a younger lawyer is probably a bit of apples-n-oranges. A savvy researcher is going to be faster in most cases, paper or electronic, simply on experience with their tool of choice.

    And one other point about the virtue of electronic over paper would be the digitization of the content for further work processes. If you deliver to your users printed copies vs photocopies, this will make no difference. But if you emailed your users pdf’s, and the research was intended to be used in work product, the simple availability of copy-paste functionality will probably save someone copy typing portions of that research into a new document.

    And finally, thank-you for the comments you’ve been submitting to Slaw Emmanuel, it’s this type of conversation that keeps us all engaged.