Friday, September 6, 2013

Skeuomorphs and Legal Research

Last night I heard [via podcast] this story, from NPR’s Fresh Air, about the new operating system for Apple’s iPads and iPhones. It’s a big change; as the story says:

To be clear: If you're an iPhone user, everything — your email, your calendar, your texts, your phone dialer, your photos, your notes — will look and work differently.

The big change involves a move away from skeuomorphs, which are ornaments or designs on objects, copied from a form of the object when it was made from another material or by other techniques. The current calendar app, for example, allows the user to flip pages from day to day, as one would with a paper planner.

It got me thinking about how legal research has its own skeuomorphs—how the organization of most electronic research materials is still rooted in the print system, how we can organize our legal research into virtual “folders,” and so on.

Here’s the jarring part: with the new operating system, almost all of these throwbacks to the physical counterparts will be gone. Are the days of legal research skeuomorphs also numbered? And, if so, are we ready to deal with that change?

I’ll be honest—I’m intimidated by the changes in iOS7, and I’ll probably wait to upgrade the software on my iPhone and iPad until someone I know and trust tries it out and demystifies it for me. And though I’ve embraced a lot of changes in how I teach legal research, I’m realizing I may be forced to make even more changes if the digital research landscape also moves away completely from its physical analogs.

So, we can put off change, but we can’t hide forever. Can we?


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Design ornaments like a spiral down the left side of the page are different from folders and files. Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget is a super-interesting read that touches on how the file system evolved. He talks about an early file-less alternative and how that didn't take hold. He says that the idea of files is so ingrained in our consciousness now that basically no one can think of anything without thinking of files as the organizing principle.

Posted by: Jennifer Romig | Sep 11, 2013 1:37:29 PM

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