Markers Along the Way

Looking at events with a long-term perspective has been a primary strength of library professionals from time immemorial. Preserve the intellectual heritage of the past, protect the information of the future: that has been one of the profession’s purposes. It is a perspective that is seldom fashionable. Change, constant change, is now part of our daily expectations. As former United States President Dwight D. Eishhower supposedly once said, things today are more like they are now than ever. (Someone else said if first, but the image of President Eisenhower pontificating is a pleasant one.) The pace of change in 2014 is so accelerated that it is a challenge to keep up, let alone to attempt reflection. The recent celebration of the 16th birthday of Google not only reminds one of the passage of time, it sets a signpost for the beginning of 21st Century reality. Professor Neil Postman once said that no news that preceded the advent of television would feel real in the modern world. If it was not capable of being televised, an event may as well have not happened. Today that statement must be amended to embrace the fact that real history now begins with a video viewable via the Internet. Though this may become a dominant approach, Information professionals know better. Marking events and stopping to consider what they portend remains a good idea, as does a sense of history and of the long horizon of the future.

Two important items to note for the end of 2014.

  1. As of July, 2014 Thomson Reuters stopped providiing the Boolean-based search system now known as Westlaw Classic in United States law schools. (It was just WESTLAW before it became classic). WESTLAWNext, with its Google-like interface and its artificial intelligence aspirations is now the standard law student platform for use of the WESTLAW database. This event is a marker in time. Thomson-Reuters’ WESTLAW operation, now shed of its cousin, West Academic Publishing, plows forward, merging law ever closer to the rest of the information world. Librarians muse. My generation of librarians taught patrons how to use a computer at a time when not every law student knew how to type. We cajoled them through the obstacle course of Boolean searching, pushed them towards new data bases, tempted them with Natural Language searching and assisted at every turn. Librarians were prophets, preaching that the new ways would prove useful. Sometimes we had to provide pizza to get them to listen.

    Now the library users, and the systems that they employ, outrun us. The law student of 2014 in Berkeley, California, comes to the law school immersed in social media and inter-connected worlds of information. As with all prophets who are proved correct by time, the librarians’ role in introducing the change is forgotten and irrelevant. Time has moved on.

    There will be more for librarians to accomplish in the future. The lawyers of 2014 have no better grasp of real research skills than their counterparts from 1984, but the end of the old Boolean-based systems, and the world from which they sprang, is worth noting. Ancient battlefields should be remembered and the victories cherished, recalling them will steel us against the changes that continue.

  1. The Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the United States announced in July, 2014 that Title 52 of the United States Code, covering all in-force federal legislation on Elections and Voting, has been promulgated. Unlike Title 51, which the U.S. Congress enacted into law as a single measure and which, therefore, stands as positive law, Title 52 is presented as an editorial accomplishment bereft of Congressional involvement. It is a prima facie statement of the law. Force of habit and convenience will lead to its immediate citation.

    Such editorial revisions have proven controversial in the distant past, and stun one in light of the rancor of the contemporary version of the U.S. Congress. Title 51 covered the topic of National and Commercial Space Programs, a subject beyond the ken of most legislators and interest groups. Election and Voting laws on the other hand, are hot button issues that are much in play in the United States’ national discussion. How could a new Title, the assemblers of which had to navigate matters of judgment, placement and categorization, slip so easily into the world of primary legal authority? I believe that the explanation is that almost no one reads pertinent legislation any longer. The Affordable Health Care Act (lovingly deemed Obamacare) was such a massive piece of legislation that many Congress people seemed to relish proclaiming that they had never read it. The careful attention to detail that once characterized the field of legislative drafting and legislative action, has long since left the stage. Most complex legislation is drafted by interest groups and passed on to the legislators for action. Congressmen routinely introduce Bills that they have never even read. This past year has seen instances where the wrong language was used in final drafts and where outright editorial errors have submarined the purpose of the legislation.

    Though I do not wish to appear to be the ancient geezer on the front porch decrying the loss of the higher standards of the good old days, it is hard not to despair of an information system that is built on shaky foundations. What good is the research process if it leads to inauthentic results? None of this to say that there is misbehavior afoot in the Legislative Revision Commission that drafted Title 52. Let us presume good faith and best efforts on their part. But the fact that no one even notices a process that was once fraught with confrontation and the most strenuous analysis barely registers. Perhaps major law revision in the United States has become too big to fail.

Each of these matters may simply be a node on the time-space continuum, but I would be surprised if each does not represent a moment that we might look back on in 2024 with a knowing nod.


  1. How true and well said. But I think that President Eisenhower was ahead of his time and looking to the future — look what he said at his press conference in 1957:

    “Q. Richard L. Wilson, Cowles Publications: Mr. President, it
    seems to me that the discussion on testing of H-bombs has left
    a lot of vacant spaces that we don’t completely understand, at
    least I don’t understand. You have said that our tests are going
    toward the point of testing clean weapons at the present time.
    Q. Mr. Wilson: Does this mean that we will not test any
    more H-bombs which create a great fallout?
    THE PRESIDENT. Well, as a matter of fact, I don’t think your
    statement is correct. I think we have found that the H-bomb in
    proportion to its size is probably one of the cleanest. I don’t
    think that your statement is correct.”

    President Eisenhower’s News Conference of June 5, 1957