Books or Bytes

I received two recent emails from colleagues that, I think, illustrate the issues in the ongoing debate of the future of print and electronic.

The first is from the Chronicle of Higher Education of an issue dated 28th July: Young, “Web 2.0: Scholars turn monographs into digital conversations”. There is a great link a podcast of John Updike criticizing aspects of the shift from printed to networked books.

The second is about the failure of the new Charleston School of Law to win accreditation from the ABA in part because the adequacy of its print library resources.

I remember Nick Pengelley and I differing somewhat on this point in a 2001 conference at the U of Toronto, in which I was arguing that the books was not yet dead but would still be significant in law.

I wonder know if this was the wrong argument and that with the advent of web 2.0 it is not the form of the intellectual content so much, as how the content can be used in more creative ways.


  1. Neil, how much of this do you think is window dressing?

    quote from the ABA/Charleston article:

    “Addressing the ABA’s third area of concern — its reliance on electronic library resources — Gershon said the school has spent $10,000 to purchase bound copies of the legal codes of several states to satisfy the ABA.”

    Sounds like a token move to me.

  2. You may be right, Steven, without knowing more of the details it is hard to tell. I guess the question I’m asking myself is, at this point, is a completely electronic/digital library sufficient for the training of lawyers and the practice of law, at least in the US and Canada. As yet, there is no private law school in Canada, but there is no logical reason why their shouldn’t be one.

  3. Is a completely electronic/digital library sufficient for the training of lawyers and the practice of law?

    Not in Canada for the lifetime of anyone currently in law school or practising or teaching – unless we get some sort of a quatum leap forward in the digitization of historic texts within a market of small numbers for the quantity of information to be processed. And that’s not even touching the copyright issues.

    So as I’ve said to successive years of students, get used to working seamlessly within all the media and tools, electronic and paper – because you’ll be working with both, for a very long time.

  4. I would have to echo Simon C’s comments. There are some law resources that are undoubtedly more useful in an electronic form than they were in print form. However, there are other resources that remain far more useful in their print form. Several times I have had students come to me after they have spent several hours struggling with electronic resources and I then take them to a print resource and they have their answer in 5-10 minutes. Furthermore, the skills which allow one to maximize the effectiveness of e resources are often lacking.

    Some things are far better in a digital form, some are better in print, we are living through the shakedown period where we are all figuring out which is which. I don’t see that changing in the next 5 years.

  5. No objection here either, though I’d pay big bucks to see a friendly debate between Simon C & Al Podboy on this article.

    There’s also a good argument to be made for keeping longer discourse materials in paper format. These always get priority for Library space planning IMO.

    My objection with the article quote was that it seemed like the ABA was simply throwing in the issue. “$10,000 to purchase bound copies of the legal codes of several states” doesn’t come close to addressing the issues Simon’s just mentioned.

  6. I agree generally with the comments above, but in response to Simon C’s comment re: digitization, I think there may be an underappreciation of the speed and extent of historical digital projects, such as Google Scholar and Project Alouette, as well as initatives of the Law Library Microform Consortium. We not need these print historical monographs in law libraries within 5 years.

    The same is not true about ebooks, which are slow to develop in law. I received a email today from QL informing me that the Irwin Law Texts will be dropped from the online database and will be only available in print, as the e-book version is cutting into the sale of the print product. This is signivicant, as Irwin Law is an independent, small Canadian legal publisher, not owned by a multi-national.

  7. I didn’t debate it with Al Podboy but I did explain my views at length at the AALL annual meeting in Washington DC a few years back. We work in a domain of knowledge that does require us to go back in time so frequently that only if that entire historical corpus is reconstructed electronically (as our friends in Dayton and Eagan have done) is a purely electronic archive thinkable.

    But for the fragmented Canadian market, forget it.

  8. On the Irwin law note. I found it interesting, though not necessarily surprising that they made this move. Personally, I’m not so sure that the presence of the Irwin Law books on QL actually did hurt their print sales, owing to the fact that one could only download a few pages at a time. Downloading an entire book, or even a chapter was a labour intensive process.

  9. Kathryn Arbuckle

    I have been lobbying Irwin for two years to publish their books as e-books outside of QL – maybe now they will think of electronic access as a new source of revenue rather than a limit on revenue. They effectively limited their e-book options so long as the books were in QL.

  10. Hello:
    Me and you are like the birds of the same….

    Your citation of the “digital conversation” coincides with mine (synchronous too). I just found your post. I have cited your books or bytes link in my post.
    Best, Mohamed.