Briefing Room


Library Balances Print, Electronic Resources

January 7, 2010 | Faculty

This is an exciting time for libraries. The positive reaction of our students to the refurbishing of various areas of the Michael E. Moritz Law Library, and the very enthusiastic response to the renovated William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library at The Ohio State University, confirm that academic libraries remain essential places. At the same time, use of electronic publications is soaring, while use of print is declining, especially among the current generation of law students. This raises an interesting question: what is the right balance of print and electronic resources in the collection? Historically, libraries evolved to collect, organize, and preserve tangible forms of writing (clay tablets to books). Academic research libraries, such as the Moritz Library, have done very well at this (even without a single clay tablet in the collection). Increasingly though, we are acquiring electronic material because it gives our students and faculty the instant access they want to a diverse range of material.

The rapidly increasing prominence of digital collections, almost none of which are free, has led us to a number of decisions. Whereas 40 years ago the goal was to have as many copies of the National Reporter System as possible, we now have one. The Moritz Library used to have multiple copies of many law reviews, now we have one copy of each. All of us who went to law school and entered practice before Lexis and Westlaw remember slogging through digests and Shepards; with only a few exceptions, these tools are now gone from our print collection. Compared with the law library of a generation ago, we have few print loose-leaf services. These decisions are not driven solely by cost; in all of these cases the electronic versions offer a level of effective and efficient access and use which cannot be matched by their print counterparts (does anyone really want to use Shepards in print again?).

Do we still buy books? Yes — and many of them. The book has been very successful for more than 500 years for good reason. Print is an exceptionally stable medium. A book printed in 2010 will be usable, with or without electricity or any of the technologies we have today, in 2510. A printed book fixes the text at a knowable point in time and can be authenticated. Thus, we are keeping one print copy of primary sources. A printed book is simply a better format for some types of publications. Monographs (books written, usually by scholars, for the community of scholars and policy-makers) are not yet widely available in electronic format. Special print collections focused on a particular area of law, or of material which is unlikely to be digitized, or of rare books (which may be digitized, but where the physical book is also intrinsically valuable) will remain very important and useful.

There is no single correct balance of print to electronic resources for all law school libraries. Our goal is to build a collection with the right mix of formats to support at a very high level research and the education of law students in the 21st century.


Bruce S. Johnson
Associate Dean for Information Services
Thomas J. and Mary E. Heck and Leo H. Faust
Memorial Designated Professor of Law