Most legal research is done online through a combination of open and subscription databases. Legal information is available at our fingertips through Justice Laws, LEGISinfo, CanLII, Westlaw, Lexis, ProView, SOQUIJ, [insert your preferred database here], and the list goes on. The availability of electronic resources has radically changed—and will continue to change—the way legal professionals conduct research. However, despite my enthusiasm for the improved accessibility and retrievability, I think the lack of engagement that new legal researchers have with print resources creates comprehension issues. The disconnect between a source’s print and electronic formats reduces their understanding of the process used to create the document. Understanding this process helps us understand the organization of information and makes a researcher more efficient.
New legal researchers are often introduced directly to the electronic version of a source without fully understanding how it came to be. For example, a student might learn about legislation and be shown how to trace a legislative history using Justice Laws without ever interacting with the print, bound statutes. They are missing the benefits of seeing the tangible organization of annual, revised, and consolidated statutes. Another example is having a student use ProView without ever flipping through a physical binder and understanding how loose-leaf releases work. Although they know each source is unique, they all present approximately the same online.
Unfortunately, limited class time and COVID-19 have made it nearly impossible to get students into the library to conduct research with print sources. I try to grab print copies of case reporters, volumes of statutes, and loose-leafs to show students in person or on Zoom, but the effect is not the same as engaging with the print source directly. Instead, when I meet with students, I often see ~18 tabs open in their browsers with sites ranging from course materials, Google, CanLII, and their preferred subscription platform. They ask me, “Why does this have to be so complicated?” And they’re right! It does seem complicated, at first glance. If we had created these resources using our modern digital environment, they would be organized differently. Print established the rules, and the digital versions have been bound by them.
When I try to explain why the digital versions might seem unnecessarily complex, but that understanding how to use the print sources will improve their navigation of the digital versions, I use the following analogy.
First, assuming Spotify is the most common music app, I ask students whether they’re more likely to download/stream full albums or singles. Once they’ve answered, I explain that the point of this question is to determine that they understand that a single song is situated within an album—the album is a collection of songs.
Next, I ask if they know why artists produce albums. This one takes a bit of waiting, and in a classroom setting a music aficionado may bring up the concept album (and rightly so!), but usually there’s someone who knows that the standard album is a result of the time limitations set by vinyl, specifically the 33 rpm LP record. (Or maybe they Google it as I’m waiting for an answer—who am I to judge?) With a brief explanation, it becomes clear that vinyl restricted artists to around 44 minutes of playing time, and this explains the standard album format still used today.
The next step is to connect the persistence of the album through various eras of music. The album has survived the evolution of music distribution. Historically, it started with vinyl, but remained through transitions between audio cassette, the CD, through to the mp3. Today, although platforms like Spotify make it easy to release only singles, it is still commonplace to release albums, and we all understand how to navigate Spotify to download/stream singles and albums both. We understand how singles are situated within albums and how to use the information surrounding a single to identify coordinating information such as the artist and album. I try to link this back to citations for revised statutes or a case law reporter. Fortunately, I usually see some heads nod and, eventually, I even get a few students who ask to look at the print.
It’s not perfect, but my intention is to show the connection between tangible, physical forms of information and the digital adaptation. They can’t flip through hyperlinks, but hopefully understanding that the digital is trying to emulate the print’s pages, indexes, and volumes makes their navigation of the online version a bit easier to comprehend.
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