Paper Books — RIP?

July 22, 2010

Editor’s Note: Welcome our first guest blogger, Mark Osbeck.  Mark’s article below explores the relationship between print and digital books, assuring us that no matter the media of choice in the future there will always be a need for librarians.

Is it true that paper books are dying a slow death?  Or if they are not dying, are they perhaps going the way of LP records: becoming collectors’ items reserved solely for sentimentalists and purists?   A lot of people find that to be a troubling prospect.

Yet there are some good reasons to believe that in fact paper books are headed towards increasing obscurity.  For one thing, electronic books will likely have a significant cost advantage over paper books once the technology becomes well-established, since they require no raw materials to produce, and a publisher can reproduce them virtually at will with little added expense.  Furthermore, electronic books are much more portable than paper books. You won’t need a suitcase to take your 25 favorite books to a desert island, and law students won’t need backpacks to carry multiple case books to class. To be sure, paper books do hold a special place in our hearts. Sitting around a fire with a favorite leather-bound classic conjures up a warm and cozy feeling that is difficult to reproduce with an electric device.  But is that feeling really enough to keep paper books in widespread use? I for one have my doubts.

As for legal research, there are still some good reasons to use paper resources, at least some of the time.  Most importantly, paper research is often more cost-effective, assuming one has access to a good law library.  Additionally, some of the more obscure print resources are still not available online.  And some people maintain that it is easier to work with books than computers when it comes to certain types of sources.  But are any of these reasons likely to win the day in the long run, as technology keeps advancing?  Again, I have my doubts.

Yet even while the future for paper research sources looks sketchy, I am confident that there is another venerable legal research institution that will not soon fade away: the law librarian. For even if law libraries ultimately become little more than fancy internet cafes, law librarians will remain important because they possess expertise in finding and using sources of law. Regardless whether these sources of law are stored in electronic databases or in print, law students can benefit significantly from the expertise of law librarians.  And that is not likely to change, even as we move toward increasingly sophisticated electronic research tools such as WestlawNext.

One other important aspect of legal research will also remain unchanged in the electronic age:  the need for lawyers to adopt a sound strategy for solving research problems.  For unless lawyers are taught to approach legal research in a systematic manner—properly following the necessary research steps from beginning to end—they run the risk of wasting time and missing important authorities.  Thus, from a pedagogical perspective, the important point is not whether law students use the library or the computer; the important point is whether they learn to follow a sound, strategic approach to legal research.

Mark Osbeck is a professor in the Legal Practice Program at the University of Michigan Law School, and the author of Impeccable Research, A Concise Guide to Mastering Legal Research Skills. He also serves as a law-firm consultant on complex commercial litigation matters. Prior to joining the faculty at Michigan, Professor Osbeck practiced law for 15 years, first in Washington, D.C., and then in Denver, Colorado, where he was a partner with a large law firm.