Books, Books Everywhere, but No One Wants to Read

One of my favorite characters in television (or any fictional source) is Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation.  Unfortunatley, in one episode when speaking to a (villainous) librarian, she utters one of the most annoying refrains that I and every single librarian has certainly heard at one point or another in our lives: “You’re pretty cocky for someone who’s job is obsolete because of the internet.”  Cockiness aside, I get it: the internet is easy.  You can “Google” anything and get an “answer” to your question, and people tend believe that any answer is a good answer.  Even Lexis Advance, Westlaw Edge and every other digital database allows natural searching to get to results.  I use these features myself, and I am not here to tell anyone that things were better when we had to research using books… except that I am and it was.  But not for us, rather for anyone starting out in legal research today, specifically law students.

The simple fact is that while almost all legal resources are available online, expanded access has become the enemy of discernment.  I have been reminded of this over the years when trying to teach students about case citations.  For a student given a case citation, one is as good as another, and more dangerously, anything that works will do.  For example, given a string citation in a resource such as “304 U.S6458 SCt.81782 LEd1188114 A.L.R1487” means a student can simply copy and paste one or all of these citations and be directed to the case Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins.  However, if asked to pincite to a particular page, you can imagine how many times I have seen a citation such as Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 82 L.Ed. 1188, 72 (1938).  For those of us in the know, clearly they pincited to the United States Reports, but how can we make this distinction clear to the students?

In the past, I have tried meeting them where they are: online.  I have shown them the star pages, how they correspond to the citations at the top of the document, and how to be crystal clear about correctly citing to the correct resource.  Unfortunately, their contextual learning skills see only the digital platform rather than the separate resources within: since everything looks the same on Lexis Advance, the case is found in Lexis Advance rather than the reporters (on a related note, so many students when asked “what resource did you find this?” answer “Lexis Advance” rather than the title of the published resource!).  Therefore, I have decided to become a stuffy curmudgeon early in my career, and I am using the print materials, not because I believe they are better, but because students need to understand where these citations are coming from.

My strategy is essentially boild down to telling my students to “get off of your screens and open a darned book!”  I have implemented use of almost exclusively print resources for my inclass exercises, using the print versions of the Illinois Reports, Northeastern ReporterFederal ReporterWest’s Illinois Digests, and plan to  have the students use print statutes and regulations in the coming eeks.  My hope, and I have already seen some glimmers of success, is that by finding a case within the physical volume and turning to a physical page number, will reconfigure their contextual understanding of citations from the computer screen to the printed page.  By giving them the physical book, I hope they gain that link between the physical resource when they look at the digital representation.  My goal is that by doing this (1) new students will fully appreciate how useful Lexis Advance et al. are by placing all of these “print” resources in one place, and (2) appreciate the vast amount of information that is still relevant and can still be found in the physical library.

About Matt Timko

Matt Timko is the Academic Technologies and Outreach Services Librarian at Northern Illinois University’s David C. Shapiro Memorial Law Library. He is also an assistant professor, teaching Basic Legal Research to the first year students. In addition to Matt’s teaching, technology, and outreach roles, he is also a reference librarian, assisting students, faculty, and the public.
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1 Response to Books, Books Everywhere, but No One Wants to Read

  1. Cynthia Bassett says:

    Bold choice to adopt curmudgeonhood so early in life! I take your point, though. As new legal researchers, it is very hard for them to conceptualize what they are seeing on a screen when it all looks the same. I like your strategy of pairing in-class exercises in print with electronic versions so they can see both.

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