by Beau Steenken
Recently, we at University of Kentucky Law have been shedding significant portions of our print collection. We have done away with journals, state codes of jurisdictions other than Kentucky, and the regional reporters (opting only to keep the Kentucky Decisions of the South Western Reporter). A portion of our motivation for doing so is related to reducing subscription costs, but the lion’s share stems from the fact that our building will shortly be undergoing renovations. The library will be losing shelf-space under the plans for the redesigned law building. Furthermore, while the building undergoes the renovation, the entire law school will be operating in exile in “interim housing” for two years. Our physical collection will be placed in storage, and we figured why pay for storing materials that we would end up cutting anyway?
No matter how necessary the weeding, it is still somewhat shocking to walk into our stacks and see the sheer number of empty shelves. We tell ourselves that we only removed the materials that our patrons were using electronically anyway, while maintaining print subscriptions for treatises that users are more likely to request in print. Whatever the rationale, though, it strikes a nerves with us as librarians to contemplate a future library with a significantly higher proportion of electronic to print materials.
Happily, though, I can attest to the continuing value of print sources in the realm of teaching legal research. At U.K. Law we introduce our students to the basic sources of law, statutes and cases, in their print forms before turning to electronic research techniques in week 4 of our class. The reason that we have the students engage with print before electronic is not so much that we expect that they’ll need to be able to engage in substantial print research in their future careers, as much as it is that students have an easier time recognizing bits of information on the computer if they have seen it in print first. The principal is similar to how it has been shown that students learn far better by taking notes by hand rather than by typing. My experiences this semester have reinforced the importance of this approach.
I am currently teaching two sections of 1L Legal Research and also an FCIL Research course for the first time. My 1L sections are larger than usual this year. Because of the large class size, I received more complaints about the print and more queries regarding when we will get to electronic research than I usually do. (Law students, it turns out, hate waiting.) However, once we began electronic research, I also had more students tell me how glad they were that we started with print, after feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information provided by West/Lexis. (They also pointed out, however, that they appreciated not having to take turns to use the platforms.)
Additionally, my FCIL class has really driven home the value of exposing students to print first, however briefly. In my FCIL class, I do not, in fact, expose students to print first. (U.K. Law does not have a large FCIL collection.) It’s a small sample size (the class has 7 students, 4 of whom I taught as 1Ls), but I have noticed that my FCIL students do not seem to recognize sources of law in their search results as readily as they did as 1Ls. Of course, part of this could be because of the… well… foreign… nature of foreign sources, but I spend about the same amount of time introducing FCIL sources as I do introducing domestic sources to 1Ls (most of whom have not previously interacted with the domestic sources). And, I do feel like the same students picked up on things faster as 1Ls when I introduced the sources in print before turning to the computers.
While my experiences certainly qualify as anecdotal, I do think that perhaps we librarians can use pedagogy as a powerful shield when it comes time to insist that yes, the library should maintain at least some actual books!