Lessons Learned: Why Print Is Dying

Last summer I wrote an article that was scheduled to be published in the Law Library Journal. The article, like Gaul, was divided into three parts. Each of the three was edgy. The first was a reflection on the end of scholarly bibliography as a mainstream intellectual activity. The second was an overheated rebuttal of a piece on the nature of Law Librarianship that the eminent Professor G. Edward White had written in the Green Bag a few years back. The third part consisted of me pontificating on the future of academic law librarianship in the United States. In that last section I pointed to Professor John Palfrey of the Harvard Law School as a possible model for the leadership.

In late summer I posted a draft of the article on SSRN. In its SSRN incarnation the article attracted some attention and earned me a few disputatious e-mails from readers. The Law Library Journal editors cleaned the work up, made some useful suggestions and told me that the piece would appear in February of 2012. In November, Professor Janet Sinder, the editor of LLJ sent me the final version with one last question. The very next day I learned that John Palfrey had resigned his position as Law Librarian at the Harvard Law School, indeed he had resigned his tenured faculty position, in order to become the Head of Phillips Andover Academy. Thus I was contemplating the final draft of an article that encouraged my readers to look to the Head of a very exclusive prep school to lead academic librarianship into the future.

This distressing fact combined with reports concerning the reorganization of the Harvard Library System, with the once proudly independent Harvard Law Library being merged into a central system, produced yet another blow. The Harvard Magazine article was upbeat about this development, a sentiment that I do not share. Ergo neither the Law Library Director at Harvard or the Law Library itself were very good models for the future.

What did I learn from this experience?

  1. Digital publication of an article, with its immediate availability, is the true path. Almost everyone who was interested in what I had to say read my ideas last fall, luckily for me this came at a time when there was a chance that they were still relevant. The delays inherent in publishing a paper journal expose one to very strange outcomes. This article as published in three dimensions reflects the reality as it existed seven months past.
  2. A good editor still does make one sound more intelligent. Professor Sinder and her staff improved my prose, poked at my thinking and, in general, made the article much better. The dilemma presented by this point and the one that precedes it does not escape my notice.
  3. The Harvard Law Library is losing its independence and its faculty leadership. This is a serious blow to academic law librarianship in the United States. If the Harvard Law Library can be folded into a central library system, what law library cannot? The battle for autonomy in law libraries has been fought for decades in the ABA Standards, as has the importance of faculty status for law librarians. It is lamentable but true that faculty status has taken hits in recent years. Now the concept of the autonomy of law libraries is in peril. American law school deans have long chafed at library expenditures. Will they defend them from usurpation?

The dawning of a new year should fill one with hope. Perhaps hope will arrive in a taxi in the next few weeks. I hope it does so before next February when my outdated thoughts appear on paper.

May 2012 be good to all of us.


  1. Great post, Bob. There is a lot to think about here with both the effectiveness that the old print model has in today’s digital world, plus what I fear is a continuing failed project at Harvard with the whole John Palfrey experiment.

    Jenny Sussin at Gartner wrote a piece yesterday that kind of dove-tails on the print portion of this article when she said that writing “The” Book isn’t as impressive (at least in her opinion) as writing “The” blog on a topic. It still boils down to the fact that (especially in Academia) we value a “book” more than its digital counter-part… but when it comes to actual relevance, most times the digital media piece gets the conversation rolling in a more timely fashion. If print could streamline the process (or at least allow a “window” into the process as it is being developed) then it might be able to save itself. I’m not sure that LLB will be able to do such a thing, however.

    As for HLS and its law library, I think that it has (and continues) to set a very bad precedent for the operations of a law library. Especially one as prestigious as Harvard. Palfrey is a great guy, with a great mind, but he was basically a “cult of personality” and running this experiment on the HLS law library is going to hurt it in the long run. The sad thing is that other schools will look at this and attempt to copy it… the end result will be a watered down law library run with the director position being essentially a place holder for politically appointed supporters of the University’s President.

  2. David Collier-Brown

    As a serious nerd and consumer of everything electronic, I rather disagree!

    I think you’re describing a continuum between blogs one one hand, with little initial editing but immediate availability, rapidly-printed magazines and newsletters such as the Economist, with more editing but somewhat slower appearance, and traditional magazines and learned journals, with lots of editorial support, careful selection of material and very delayed appearance.

    The latter is exacerbated by some magazine publishers being quite slow in the mechanical phase between the end of editing and the beginning of distribution.

    They need not be terribly slow: the Atlantic Monthly tends to be quite up to date (which they attribute to being “electronic first”, but that’s a different debate).

    As a computer scientist in a fast-moving field, I value the monthly learned journals, and annuals like the ARRL Handbook. As a philosopher, looking at eternal verities, a new edition of The Republic about once a century is fine.

    Horses for courses!


  3. Delay is not necessarily the fault of the medium. Good writing and good scholarship always take time. Whether published in digital format or print format, a change in circumstances can occur swiftly, as it did in this case. I am in favor of digital publication for scholarly works as long as an adequate online depository and archive is securely in place. Even in today’s “sophisticated” online world, we risk the loss of hundreds of hours of intellectual output if work product cannot be easily retrieved via a reliable citation and storage system. Taking this a step further, government works published exclusively in digital format are easily lost. They are also easily changed, with no record of revisions. Digital availability is wonderful but important information should also be published in paper to preserve access and integrity.