Woman with black hat by Lightfoot at Morguefile.com

Everyone Reads the Classics

People often say that they do one thing, to create an appearance that they are smarter, better read, whatever, when in fact they do something entirely different in reality.  This piece in the Guardian from 2009 and this one on the Beeb look at how readers do this sort of thing.  I’m sure it happens in many areas, whether it’s the television shows or foods or reading materials we prefer.  We know what our culture or peers or whomever thinks we should like, but we have this other preference.  The guilty pleasure!

This all ran through my mind as I read this blog post on how undergraduates and secondary school students use social media and generic online resources (Google and Wikipedia in particular) to get their research and homework completed.  The essence is that we are likely underestimating use of these resources because they happen out of sight of the teachers and are often looked down upon, so students may not own up to their research methods.  It reiterated what I have heard at conferences. Arguing that these resources are inaccurate has little impact (because that argument can and often is wrong).  Instead, there has to be a different way of discussing how research is or should be performed.

It made me wonder about legal research, naturally.  The drumbeat (which I no longer hear in my own head) is that lawyers can only perform competent legal research if they start with secondary materials (commentary and texts), then shift to primary legal materials.  Sitting down at a computer and running a search is not acceptable, particularly when the search is on Google or Bing, and not Westlaw or LexisNexis.

Yet there are indicators that lawyers are using their libraries less, that they tend to use primary law first after running a search rather than following the traditional method.  Few people will own up to that.  When a discussion about whether to keep this or that print secondary resource, there is always a clamor to keep it.  But it may continue to gather dust after those who have championed it return to their own guilty pleasure, of either doing Internet-based research or no research at all!  If there is a learning black market as described in that Oxford blog post, I wonder if that sort of culture exists in legal research as well:  our researchers say they want one thing, because it’s expected, when in reality the research is being done in a very different way.  If that’s the case, librarians are not only disintermediated, they may be walking in entirely the wrong direction.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.