Thursday, November 29, 2007

Where are we going? (And what will we do when we get there?)

Information- centric professions are moving through a time of huge change right now. I include both the legal and the library profession in that statement. So, law librarians like me are getting it from both sides of our professional pedigree. So, where are we going? When will we get there (as the kids in the back seat always want to know)? And what will we do when we get there?

Folks with plausible, authoritative-sounding answers to these questions get big bucks as consulting futurists and pundits. I don’t have either kind of answer. But I have thoughtful guesses, which might actually be more useful.

1. We are in a transition phase from one information storage and retrieval system to a host of others. Basically, we are moving from near total print domination to a combination of print and digital in lots of different storage systems.

1.1 Most librarians are working hard at balancing their collections. Every library needs a different mix depending on what the host institution does. Most firms are very far along on the switch to digital, driven by the calculations of cost per square foot to house a library, and the speed, multi-user licenses, and distance access offered by the excellent products available digitally. But even firms are probably keeping some print – the Thomson Town Meeting at AALL last summer (link) showed that librarians at big-city firms across the country were noting a need for continued access to print for certain types of materials. Law school libraries have two added pressures to maintain more materials in print or both. Law schools are teaching institutions, and many still teach students to use print – another point made at the Thomson Town meeting – students do better research when they understand print as well as digital. The other pressure applies to schools that have part of their mission to provide access to research materials for either the bench and bar or for the public. In both cases, it is difficult to arrange licenses that will cover all parties, and thus, some libraries maintain print for folks not covered by licenses.

1.2. There will be a mix of print and digital in most libraries for a long time to come. There are certain types of materials that are not being converted into digital or that are old and will probably not be converted for quite a while, if ever. Legal research often needs historical information. Unlike most medical or science research these days, legal researchers often need to see a case, a treatise, or a statute or article from decades or even centuries ago. Most older cases and increasing numbers of superseded statutes are online, but treatises and university press monographs are not being back-digitized in any numbers yet, or as they are published, even.

2. I think digital will not completely supersede the need for some materials in print.

2.1. Some things go better in print. Things that work really well digitally are relatively concise items that stand alone, not as part of an ordered series. So, people tend to prefer print or do better with print for codes, where the organization and context actually carry meaning beyond the actual text of a single statute you might find. Westlaw and Lexis are doing good things to restore some of that meaning, but I think people still do statutory research better in print. People also prefer the look and feel of print for some reading. Long documents are just hard to read online – though that may be a generational thing that will change. Or when we get digital paper so we read without backlighting or glare, it might change. But for now, I think most people prefer books, long articles, chapters, in print.

2.2. In the past, very few new technologies completely superseded an earlier technology. They mostly continue together, with the older technology losing dominance, but still being used. For instance, print did not completely supersede handwriting. Writing did not completely supersede orality and memorization. But an example of near total superseding is how books have nearly completely replaced scrolls. Scrolls were once the absolutely ubiquitous way to store written texts of any length. But when what we now call books appeared, within a fairly short time, scrolls came to be used only for ceremonial purposes. Books were just a much better, more convenient way to store and retrieve text. You no longer had to unroll and roll through lots of text to find the passage you wanted. You flipped pages or marked them with a bookmark, and could easily and quickly get to the relevant part, whether it was near the beginning, in the middle or at the end of the text. Easier to store on shelves as well, and probably sturdier (though I don’t really have any experience to compare). So, until some digital material proves that much superior to print, I don’t think we will see digital replace all print.
So, I have this colleague who keeps asking me when will I get rid of all the books in my library. I frankly don’t know if he thinks I am stupid, incompetent or a raging territorial bitch. I have thought of asking about that, but in the interests of harmony, haven’t, yet. I think I’ll point him to this blog next time he asks.

And next time I get some spare time, I will write some more about where I think we are going and what we’ll do when we get there.

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