Print Isn’t Dying, It’s Just Shrinking

There is an interesting discussion going on at my library.  As others may be doing, we are considering the proper mix between print and online resources.  ABA law school accreditation Standard 606 now allows for “a core collection of essential materials through ownership or reliable access.”  It’s that last part, “reliable access,” that triggers deep soul searching of what to buy in print or what to buy as an electronic subscription.  Tempering the rule are other qualifications that state the core collection should support faculty scholarship and the curriculum, and that a collection that consists of a single format may violate Standard 606.

In this context I’ve recommended that we drop the National Reporter System, ALRs, CJS, multiple state codes, and selected treatises that are online.  This may sound radical to some.  I know that law schools and libraries are experiencing budget cuts due to lower enrollment.  That drives part of the analysis.  Another factor that bears thought is what we teach these days.  The legal writing program at DePaul started teaching all electronic research.  We experienced a drop in library visits as a consequence.  No more treasure hunts, no answering the same questions over and over at the reference desk.

I can remember how far we’ve come in electronic access.  We used to teach print resources because that’s what the legal market had out there.  Now electronic access to case law and other primary sources is ubiquitous.  At one time it was viable to teach print because the databases were based on print.  Understand the organization of print and the online version would make more sense.  That’s not so true anymore.  Online database providers no longer think in terms of echoing print other than citation and star paging.  Certainly there was a time when case law on Westlaw was organized by reporter.  Not anymore.  It’s all jurisdictional, and that seems natural now compared to looking for a database containing the Northeastern Reporter.

Look at how citators have changed.  There was a time when Shepards online would be no more current than the latest print update.  Even the CD-ROM product mirrored print.  Now everything is dynamic.  I can’t imagine why anyone would want to subscribe to the print edition at this point.  We cancelled our print copies years ago. If anything was made easier by online access, Shepards, KeyCite, and citators in general are it.  They are more complete, can be filtered, and everything is spelled out instead of interpreting symbols attached to citations.

Then there are law reviews.  I have to say how much I like Hein Online when it comes to law reviews.  Everything back to day one is there in PDF format more or less.  We still get paper copies of law reviews but discard them once they appear on Hein.  No more binding these books for the collection.  Google Scholar works as a handy index to Hein content as well as other scholarly databases.

So now the next question is what is the proper mix for print and online?  I know that some libraries have already dropped major primary resources such as reporters.  In one sense, we are behind the curve on making that set of decisions.  Never in my career had I thought I would be part of this kind of decision.  Times change.  I find that I’m not very sentimental about physical materials that no one uses at my library.

Mark

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