Print vs Online..continued

I am currently writing an article which basically looks at and updates a piece I published five years ago on the future of academic law libraries. The central thrust of the piece is the continuing print vs online debate. I give a few examples of print serials and talk about the pros and cons of cancellation in favour of online access and it would help me if I could get some reactions and counter-arguments. In the article I refer to, inter alia, the Harvard Law Review and Ontario Statutes (supposing that the E-Laws version is given authorized status). I use these as examples because its very unlikely that any academic law library in Canada has given any thought to canceling the print and probably most would recoil at the suggestion. But why? They are both available online from a variety of sources,pay and free. The Harvard Law Review has pdf versions of articles at its own web-site.

Leaving aside issues of ranking based on volume count (and this is less of an issue in Canada than south of the border) arguments against print cancellation seem to be more visceral than reasoned – because these sources are sooo important, we must have them – or our libraries would be somehow less worthy. Or the Internet will collapse, or the prices publishers charge for the online version will go through the roof leading to cancellation – and if the online version was the only one subscribed, then, poof, the library would have nothing. But if those dire eventualities came to pass wouldn’t the kind folks at Harvard sell us a print set? My bottom line is simply this: as a director of a law library which, like most others, will never have enough money to buy everything our users would like us to have, how can I justify spending money on a title which we have online (and in many cases, as with my two examples, for free). Of course if you accept my two ‘extreme’ examples this then opens the floodgates to anything ‘lesser’. Hope I get some feedback…..


  1. All I can say is, “ditto.”

  2. Thanks for the feedback Jim – I was hoping for something more argumentative though that I could then respond to in my article – does this mean everyone agrees with me?

  3. I think this is an important issue, Nick, and one which deserves more thought and scholarhip. I see that Jim, by his laconic response, agrees.

    However . . .

    I think what you have done is set up a false dichotomy – print and online (or digital or electric or whatever). Its not that simple.

    It should be fairly clear by now that we are in a time of great change in information and knowledge brought about by technology. The last such change occured through the introduction of moveable type and the printing press, thus transforming the world of knowledge. This period last for about 300 to 400 years. The class work on this is Elizabeth Eisenstein. “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.”

    All this is background to the fact that we cannot at this point see the end of this change, although is certainly will be quicker than 300 years, and that the recipients of the change may be one or two generations removed from us.

    So, by all means cancel print in favour of electronic, if your community of scholars are supportive, there is no penalty from the publisher for cancelling the print, and you can guarantee to have access to some form of permament volume of back issues. Remembering that the long-term lifespan of digital records is still uncertain.

    I think the issues facing legal academe and legal research are these: get as much material scanned as we can as soon as we can, particulary books, and educate authors and creators to make their material publically available much in the way of the ‘creative commons licence”. This is where we need to spend our energies and resources. Whether to cancel print or not is, in my view, just a sideshow which will largely take care of itself.

    Even then, before you cancel, you need to consider what to do with the reclaimed space in a way that fits with the new technology and patterns of scholarship and instruction.

    Although I have been thinking these things for some time, I must admit that I was galvanized into a clearer view of these things by the recent article “Scan this Book!” by Kevin Kelly in the New York Times of 14 May 2006. He doesn’ t reall say anything new, but he does synthesize all the issues in a nicely reasoned argument for a small piece of writing.

    I hope this is argumentative enough, although that certainly is not my real intent.


  4. I think the stronger argument against cancelling print is actually the one that centers on the liberty of companies to change their business model and the possible impact on pricing. This is by far the more volatile variable in the longterm future of electronic information services.

    This risk however seems a little over stated. If the prices increased an oppressive amount then wouldn’t librarians and other researchers start to take the information/ideas and transfer them to a non proprietary system? It seems to me that if the pricing went through the roof these companies would risk destroying their industry. Am I wrong? Isn’t this one aspect of what law firms are trying to do with KM to a certain extent?

    Seems clear to me that the switch should be made to the electronic version. I tried to pick what I thought was one of the better arguments against cancellation but as I said it doesn’t seem to be a serious after a little consideration.

  5. Thanks for the comments Neil – I too read the Kelly article – nothing new but nicely focussed.

  6. Nick, I should also add another thought. I myself am hesitant to do wholesale cancellations of print at this point. Maybe the hesitancy is simply the conservative nature of the legal profession generally. But I’m also cautious because I have not yet found any good data on how faculty research and students learn in the online environment. We know that law requies synthesis, and that physically they require more space than other students, so they can spread material around. But is the same true online?

    Maybe the answer is to replace the print and provide students with workstations with two or three monitors.

    Also, as an afterthought, I would certainly cancel the harvard law review if it was otherwise readily available. What I would not cancel in print would be the Canadian academic law journals, or journals from scholarly societies who need the revenue from print to remain viable.