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“Our library is all electronic.” “We don’t need a library anymore — it’s all online.” How often have law firm librarians heard those or similar sentiments expressed by partners and management! It is true that the last 30 years have brought about what is appropriately described as an electronic revolution in legal information, but it is a modern myth that a fully virtual library is an effective resource supporting legal research and optimizing the effectiveness of lawyers. It is an oversimplification of what lawyers need and how they work. The current extent of digital access to legal resources is vast. Primary sources for United States law — including court opinions, legislative enactments, and administrative agency actions — are available from LexisNexis and Westlaw and other vendors, and free public Web sites provide access to resources as well. These public Web sites may not have the functionality or powerful search engines of commercial databases, but the point is that for federal law, the information exists in digital, accessible form. The historical depth of these collections — once an issue for research — has increased and it is possible to access federal law since the country’s inception by accessing digital collections. On the state level, court opinions and statutes are for the most part accessible electronically. Additionally, many secondary sources can be accessed digitally. Law reviews are included in several databases. Digital access is also possible for treatises on a wide range of topics. What started as limited access to only standard treatises currently includes treatises on a wide range of subject areas, as well as digital access to the topical services offered by such major publishers as BNA and CCH. Few would disagree that the medium of access has shifted; but is that fundamental change reflected in how lawyers work? SAME OLD, SAME OLD Research suggests that users of information delivered electronically work much as they did before electronic access. Research on the human factors of computerization has long shown that people will print documents that are longer than one or two screens. For instance, a recent study of undergraduate history students at Carnegie Mellon University provides fascinating detail on how the newest generation interacts with course materials provided electronically. The study, “World History on the World Wide Web: A Student Satisfaction Survey and a Blinding Flash of the Obvious,” in The History Teacher, found that students “have a deeply-rooted aversion to reading these documents from their computer screens.” The course was a standard introduction to world history, with an enrollment of 500 to 700 students each semester. In 2000 the course was redesigned, and the students read articles and original documents rather than a textbook. Students used some materials in hard copy, but more than half of the resources were accessed on a Web site. This change was an effort to provide flexibility for the instructors and to avoid the complexity and cost of assembling course packets. What was the result of the digital access? Sixty-eight percent of the students who responded to an online survey reported printing out all of the readings — several hundred pages of text. Respondents cited “readability” as their reason for printing, and amplified this by comments on eye strain and fatigue. They also used print to enable them to annotate the readings. Most importantly, however, they found the digital materials harder to master than print. Students reported, “It’s hard to know where you are,” “I often lose my place,” “I absorb materials more quickly and better from a hard copy.” The author concluded that “physical and visual cues” in books — such as placement of information on the page and topic headings — facilitate comprehension. Many of those surveyed indicated they concentrated better with print, and their comprehension was better. It is worth emphasizing that these were technologically proficient users who nonetheless expressed unease with online access. That unease has been noted by other researchers who have associated online access to information with lowered rates of comprehension. This is fascinating research, but what are the implications for lawyers and legal research? It validates what librarians know empirically: Most lawyers print or prefer to use hard copies for many research projects. They print copies of the 45 cases they retrieved online, after a quick survey to confirm that the search was effective. They print a code section with annotations or use it in hard copy. MY OWN PRIVATE LIBRARY What lessons can lawyers and law librarians take away from this? Is the “all electronic” library achievable? In theory it is for most law practices, but in actuality most lawyers tend to want their materials in print. They build their own library of the documents consulted in developing an opinion letter, brief, or theory about their client’s problem. They will highlight or flag key points to be able to capture them later. This strikes at the concept of the virtual library if all we have done is made printing a local, single-user function. At the same time, reducing the size of the print library makes sense. The exponential growth in case reporters alone, and the costs associated with storing them, support accessing those resources on-line. The power of electronic access means that much case research includes electronic research and most lawyers are therefore accustomed to locating cases by citation, or conducting a search for cases on point. Where the all-electronic library fails as a concept, though, is with resources that require longer study and consideration of principles. The electronic library is not an effective delivery mechanism where researchers would benefit from the juxtaposition of sections, or when they might want to browse. The discussion of motions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) occupies more than 400 pages in the third edition of Wright and Miller’s Federal Practice and Procedure. It is indexed and the content is subdivided into a well-organized discussion, extensively supported by case annotations. Lawyers who use it in print may easily scan the table of contents, use its index, turn to subsections of interest, look for supporting authority in the jurisdiction of interest, and browse adjacent subdivisions. The average online user struggles to do the same research effectively and efficiently. For now at least, it is time to dispense with the all-electronic library as a goal. We should certainly stop thinking of the library as a physical space — and law firms have done this by providing electronic access — but we should begin thinking about the “library” of resources that support the practice. In this context we should maintain print libraries of key resources when the use of print is the best way to access the information, when users prefer it, and when it optimizes the effectiveness of a highly trained and expensive human resource.
Kay M. Todd is senior legal researcher in the Atlanta office of Paul Hastings Janofsky & Walker. Todd says her firm’s libraries have just the right mix of electronic and print materials.

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