A Tinkerbell in Buffalo

Over the past year, I have been working on a book about the evolution of legal information in my lifetime. It is probably one of those projects that will never be finished but it is worth trying. The vagaries of time and fate placed me in an excellent position to observe the shift in the tectonic plates of legal research. When I graduated from law school in 1974, the world of printed legal information was at the end of its golden age. The West National Reporter System, the American Digest System and Shepard’s Citators were ascendant. The cutting edge of paper updating — pocket parts and loose leaf services — was firmly in place. There were no personal computers, no internet, no e-mail, and no cell phones. We did have indoor plumbing, but it was a different world. I saw it all change.

The major agents of change are easy to spot. In the world of legal research, LEXIS and then WESTLAW rose up. Library catalogs became digitized. In the wider world, the PC, Apple, Microsoft, and the World Wide Web marched across the stage. Then the great cloud of Google descended from on high to work with the Internet and cell phones to morph information beyond recognition. But are there other players who changed the game — players less well-known? Trying to suss out who the hidden agents of change might be has fascinated me. What publishers or products that fit below the radar had major impacts? 

One such game changer is Hein Online. The product of one of the last survivors from the world of independent law publishers in the United States, Hein is now in its third generation of operation. William S. Hein the senior began working for Fred Dennis, a legendary figure in the book trade, when he was 16. He began the William S. Hein Company in Buffalo, New York in the early 1920s. The bloodlines run deep. Still rooted in Buffalo, New York, Hein has had a more profound impact on law library collections in the United States than any other entity. Why? Because the Hein Company convinced us that we could trust them.

My metaphor for cognitive authority is the ‘tinkerbell.’ In the movie Peter Pan, Tinkerbell is a fairy who only lives as long as children believe in her existence. If everyone believes, she is vital. Cognitive authority works the same way. If everyone trusts a tool, if everyone uses that tool, then that tool is authoritative. Even if it has flaws no one notices. There is no longer a need to critically analyze it; it is now part of the furniture. It just is.

Accomplishing this feat is no simple trick. Trust has to be earned. The Hein Company — which formerly operated a big business reprinting runs of law reviews for new libraries doing a bit of original publishing and serving as a jobber of books and serials — rolled with the technological punches. Bill Hein, the younger took over the family business and looked to the future. Hein began to scan in federal materials and law reviews that were out of copyright. Launched in 2000, HeinOnline consisted of one lone library of materials, law journals, with 25 titles. Brick by brick, over time, Hein added content and increased quality. They built a structure so dependable that we came to trust it. Law reviews cut better deals with them, so more recent issues appeared. Whole new categories of materials were included. The edifice grew. Hein Online became accepted as a place where PDF files of legal information were safely archived. I am not sure when the tipping point came, but at some magical moment libraries across the United States realized that they did not have to retain paper copies any longer. They could rely on HeinOnline. People started throwing out books. Hein Online was the new Tinkerbell. Weaning law journals away from the requirement to see the cited source in paper, and convincing them that the source could be read as a PDF has taken longer, but it is happening too. Most libraries feel flush if they keep a single print copy of many serials now; HeinOnline has it covered. While LEXIS and WESTLAW were showering our students with training and gifts, HeinOnline was changing our collections. The system has a new and improving search engine, but it is as an archive that it changed our world. 

Having been lucky enough to have known Bill Hein Sr., and having been a contemporary of Bill Hein, Jr., I saw it all happen. But it happened in slow motion. Few saw it coming. That is how authority is created. It is not handed down from above; it grows up from below. The Hein folks did it. Now, most American law libraries could not live without it: The Hein family, agents of change that fly below the radar.

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