Monday, November 14, 2005

Another Nail in the Coffin

I was kindly invited to guest blog this week after Jim noticed a preliminary draft of my recent article The Death of the Digests and the Pitfalls of Electronic Legal Research on SSRN. The article was published this week in Law Library Journal. The article reports the results of a study I conducted last Fall using my Advanced Legal Research students as subjects. I wanted to test the old adage that print digests are the tool of choice for researching legal rules while electronic databases are best suited for finding cases discussing unique factual situations. Students completed in class training and then located cases discussing legal rules and unique factual situations using West’s Federal Practice Digest 4th Series, a terms and connectors search and KeySearch.

The results of the study did not confirm the old adage. In fact students were slightly more successful at answering fact questions with the print digest than they were using either of the electronic resources. Students were also more successful at answering rule questions using a terms and connectors search than they were using the print digest or KeySearch.

The results were surprising. In my opinion they show that today’s law students are a versatile bunch. Students took the digest, a tool designed around and universally proclaimed to be excellent at researching legal rules, and successfully used it to find cases with similar factual situations. They took terms and connectors searching and used it to find legal rules, who needs the old digest structure after all.

BTW: those of you who attended STCL Professor Tracy McGaugh’s talk at the AALL Middle Manager’s Breakfast this year may recall her discussing versatility as a key trait among Gen-Xer’s who grew up with the first generation of personal computers, DOS and no plug and play. Millennials aren’t so versatile as they grew up with technologies that were much easier to use.

They Can Use the Print Digest – But They Won’t
While these students may be capable of using the print digest their answers to opinion questions about the print digest drove another nail in the digest’s coffin. I asked for students’ opinions of the effectiveness of a resource both before and after they completed the exercises. Students were especially fond of terms and connectors searching and consistently ranked it the most effective method of answering both rule and fact questions before and after training and completing the exercise. Opinions of the print digests’ effectiveness at answering both types of questions were consistently very low both before and after receiving training and completing the exercises. The majority of students, 69%, said they found the digest cumbersome and unwieldy to use.

These young members of Generation X and older Millennials cut their teeth on personal computers in grade school. By the time they reach law school these students prefer and expect to conduct legal research for facts, rules, and everything else electronically. Even when I revealed to the students how successful they were with the print digest they responded that they still preferred electronic resources over the print digest. Today’s students do not share some law librarians’ devotion to the print digest. For all practical purposes the print digest is dead to these students before they learn it exists.

Tomorrow I will discuss the common pitfalls that students fell into when using electronic resources and discuss what librarians should do to correct these shortcomings.

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