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When doing legal research, is it easier to use online sources or books?  Which produces better results?  Can you even do it all online, if you want to?

As part of the answer to this, the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries have a web page titled Isn’t everything online and free?   It states: “There is a popular misconception that you can find everything on the web for no charge. The truth is that most of the resources in our law libraries are only available in print or through expensive licensed databases.”  It goes on to give examples.   (*Note:  While you are in one of the law libraries, you can use these online databases for free.)

Professor Dennis S. Sears, Senior Librarian at the Howard W. Hunter Law Library, Brigham Young University, wrote an interesting and useful article based on his study of teaching legal research to law students.  His article is subtitled: “overcoming student resistance to the use of print sources and striking a balance that instills an appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of both print and online sources”.    33 Legal Reference Services Quarterly:38-68 (2014)

“Given the propensity of law students to default to online research, this article describes the results of a three-year longitudinal study of an integrated approach to teaching first-year legal research.   The approach required students [to] conduct legal research tasks both online and in print sources, and to evaluate their experience. “  (p. 38, Abstract)

“Over a three-year period, this approach in the first-year course yielded surprising results.  Instead of me trying to force-feed my students print sources, the students actually came to appreciate and even prefer print sources in many instances based on their own experience.” (p.46)

“…the initial results underscored the prevalent belief that a proficiency in print resources first improves the ability of researchers to conduct research not only in the print sources but online as well.”  (p. 46, footnote 34)

“Many legal professionals have expressed an uneasiness not only about the demands of the rising generation for unfettered access to online sources but about their antipathy (if not downright hostility) toward learning to use print materials. These professionals have experienced the strengths of tables of contents, indexes, digests, citators, and other access tools. These tools have been developed and refined over decades and provide an access capability that is lacking in the results from online search query. Although some of these tools have been loaded wholesale online, they still seem to lack some of the sophistication of the print sources, for example, the ability to see the relationships among various provisions of a code.” (p. 39-40)

After taking his class, Professor Sears’ law students’ advice to others include these quotes:

“My first piece of advise [sic.] …would be to use available print resources first…  Sometimes, online searching can be frustrating because, if you don’t know the key terms of art, you may search and search (losing money on every search) without finding the exact results you want until you finally figure out the right way to put the terms and connectors [together]… [It] is much more cost-effective to use the print sources available to identify the sources you want to use, and then just plug in the citation you find in the print sources online to find the relevant material you want online.”  (p.60)

“…The books can sometimes be much faster, although some students don’t believe this.  But speed isn’t the main goal, nor is saving money.  The goal is to perform accurate and in-depth research and sometimes online resources just aren’t accurate or complete.  The books allow you to see what you are researching in a different way, and often that way is more efficient and complete.”

“Don’t rely heavily on online sources. They are not only costly, but they can produce a false sense of completion with your research…[S]tart with the printed copies…The printed copies allow you to get a more comprehensive view of the problem and in many instances the printed editions are faster to use with their indexes.” (p. 60)

Professor Sears’ conclusion was:

“The preference among law students for online resources is more of a product of their own familiarity with computers and the Internet and their inexperience with legal materials in print than a conscious preference for online materials based on experience.” (p. 64)

Having said all this, the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries have a series of “Law About…”  web pages designed to provide legal research information on a variety of topics.  The “Law About …” web pages include the relevant laws and regulations, and further useful information, pointing to both print and online sources.  In some cases, this information may be all you need.


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