Better in Print? Guiding Students to Books in the Digital Age

Lately, I’ve been wondering if there are certain legal sources that are better in print than online. I am, admittedly, part of a generation of law graduates and students that hardly ever open a book to conduct legal research. By the time I graduated from law school in 2012, online legal databases had already started dominating the world of legal research.


Law books on a shelf. Photo by umjanedoan (Flickr)

Even as a digital native, I found it difficult to keep up with all the latest tools and technology. I relied on professors, internship supervisors, librarians, and student reps to stay updated. Now, as a law school librarian, I have way too many legal technology blog subscriptions to make sure I’m staying knowledgeable, and I’m aware of the bells and whistles that come with the advanced technology of many fee-based subscription databases. I’m also aware of the potential pitfalls.

What I’m less aware of is how, in this modern age of “everything-is-online,” print books may or may not enter the world of legal research dominated by algorithms and search engines. During reference encounters with law students, if relevant, I tout the many benefits of understanding print legal research, including but not limited to the following:

  • You gain foundational knowledge of the hierarchy and structure of legal sources.
  • Many judges and attorneys prefer to conduct research in print, and will expect them to understand how to use print sources.
  • Print research can be cheaper and more cost-effective than online legal research.
  • Some resources are easier to read, understand, and cross-reference in print format.

To expand on the last point, I would like to start offering students more concrete examples of legal sources that are actually better in print than they are online. I know that many treatises and other secondary sources may be easier to read and understand online – for instance, readers can quickly assess how much an author discusses a specific subject, which may be difficult to replicate and view in an online database. I also know that many researchers prefer to look at statutes in print, since you can more easily understand the legislative history and process of publication than viewing online in a database.

I’m still a very new law librarian. I hope to keep comparing online and print materials so I can add to this list as the years fly by in this profession. If a student comes to the Reference desk and specifically asks why they should ever have to open a book in law school, I know that I can offer the reasons above and note that many people may prefer the print display of information without the disruptive effect of scrolling. I would also love to offer them concrete, specific examples of print materials that are superior to their online counterparts.

In the meantime, I will continue to try to showcase research strategies that employ both print and online methods in a variety of formats. It’s becoming a less and less popular belief, but I think law books still provide the best method of teaching context to law students — it’s so easy to flip to a Table of Contents or Index to help gain a quick understanding of a subject and how it relates to other topics as well. As the primary use of online legal sources grows, I think it’s never a bad idea – for whatever reason – to remember that we have other options outside of computerized legal research.

About alynnmatthews

Librarian and communications nerd with a B.A. in journalism from Hampton University, J.D. from University of Miami Law, and M.S.L.I.S. from Catholic University of America.
This entry was posted in Artificial intelligence, Issues in Law Librarianship, Legal Education Standards, Legal Research, Legal Research Instruction, Legal Technology, Reference Services, Statutory research, Teaching (general). Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s