Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Beyond Paper Vs. Electronic

Lightning moves through our brains in stable patterns: zzzt for speech recognition; zzzzat for reading. Our brains work by electrical impulses moving across synapses, triggering chemical reactions. But the patterns are different for differnt types of communication transfers. We have known for some time that people process information differently when they hear it, for instance, than when they read it.

I am betting that if we start looking, we will see a similar difference between processing patterns for information received electronically versus via print. I don't know this for a fact. The print does appear on a screen. But I believe that we are dealing with at least some aspects of the information differently when it's on a computer than when it's in a book. And I think a lot of librarians and lawyers have been noticing the same thing. There are a couple articles by partners from two different law firms, criticizing a sole reliance on electronic research: The Corruption of Legal Research, 46 For the Defense 39 (2004) by Scott P. Stolley tells of examples of new associates failing to complete research assignments because they relied on electronic resources. Stolley found the materials himself using print resources in less than a half hour, and now requires his new associates to go to print first and use computers only secondarily. In This is What I'm Thinking: A Dialogue Between Partner and Associate... From the Partner, 25 Litigation 8, (1998), Mark Herrmann tells his new associates not to begin research with a computerized search unless he explicitly requests it. He does believe that a computer search is necessary to finish the research.

I have an uneasy suspicion that the publishers are planning to push libraries into converting more and more of the collection into electronic formats over the next few years. And I think that would be a huge mistake. For a lot of reasons... partly from my point of view as the erstwhile owner of the information, I really am reluctant to transfer to a licensee, especially at the same doggoned price! But I also think it will forever change legal research. Not necessarily for the better. There are things about electronic research that I love. But there are things about print research that I will miss very much. I think we have a better idea of the context of ideas in print, and that this is especially key for codes. I think we think more deeply and broadly when we read in print -- but I sure don't know why. I just know that I see that over and over in the papers I get from students, and even in the work I do myself. We go slower when we work with print, and faster online. Fast is very good for some things. But fast is not good for thinking.

Think about it.

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