The Value of Teaching Print Legal Research

by Tara Mospan

This summer I taught an Intensive Legal Research class composed entirely of 2Ls, in which not a single student had ever used print resources to locate primary law. My students were not trained in print legal research in their 1L research and writing course and had never had a reason to pull any print resources off the shelves—not until the first day of this summer course, at least, when they found out they would have a graded assignment requiring them to do just that.

I gave significant thought to whether I would provide instruction on using “the books” in this course, as the teaching of print resources seems outdated. Indeed, most students express a clear preference for conducting legal research tasks online, and a majority of attorneys report that their research is primarily conducted electronically. Nonetheless, I forged ahead with detailed instruction on how to use digests, reporters, and the descriptive word index. I did so primarily because I think that the contextual knowledge my students gain from learning how to use the print resources makes them better legal researchers overall and thus more “practice ready.” Plus there are some side benefits: (1) they learn cost effective research skills; and (2) they will be able to get something done the day internet access inevitably goes down.

I think there is a connection between the widely reported lack of research skills exhibited by new lawyers and the move away from teaching print resources. Let me be clear: with some exceptions, I do not think that print legal research resources are inherently superior to online ones. In fact, I conduct a significant portion of my own research using online databases. However, I do think that knowledge of print resources and the ensuing familiarity with how legal information is organized is a key component of successful researching. For example, I know I can turn to the print statutory code to help me understand the connections between related statutory sections. I am also aware of the value of good, cross-referenced index when I am not familiar with a particular legal field’s terms of art. This knowledge helps me better navigate resources online as well as understand the best tools and access points for a given project.

Learning how to find cases, locate statutes, and navigate the ALRs in print has made me a better electronic researcher. I think that same knowledge of the print resources can also make my students better researchers, both while in school and in their future legal practice.  Firms and other legal employers have high research expectations for their attorneys, and I want my students to have the knowledge to exceed those expectations. While they may not have another reason to touch the books after my class, I hope the context and familiarity with legal research tools they gained from using the print resources serves them well for many years to come.

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This entry was posted in Information Literacy, Legal Research, Legal Research Instruction, practice ready, RIPS blog and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Value of Teaching Print Legal Research

  1. Jean Willis says:

    Hi Tara –
    I agree with you. A colleague and I teach what we call “Law Library Basics” (both CA and federal) classes in our public law library in Sacramento, CA. Originally we aimed these classes at self-represented litigants, but now our class attendees are mainly: a) attorneys wanting MCLE credit (but they pay attention!), b) paralegals and other law office workers wanting to gain better understanding of legal materials and how to use them, and c) state and federal agency workers (of all kinds).

    We teach about print resources, as well as free, reliable, legal resources on the Internet, plus a little about how to access materials via our public access account for one of the fee-based legal research databases. We use print resources to show the pluses and minuses of attempting to do research via online sources (especially free govt websites) v print. Sometimes print is still superior for accessing certain types of information, and the finding aids are key research tools that are nearly impossible to duplicate online.

    We continue to witness “die hard online” users actually acknowledging the use for print, especially the finding aids, which can often be faster, easier and more reliable than online, especially if you’re not the most savvy searcher. Even using the fee-based databases may not always supplant some research in print. And yes, we also find that showing how to research in print does often help users to grasp how the databases are set up and what types of search logic to use depending on what you’re looking for.

    I guess one fine day we’ll end up teaching just electronic research strategies, but for now, I think it’s not just useful, but often crucial, to teach print research. Nice article. Thanks.

    Jean Willis
    Sacramento County Public Law Library

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