Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Law firm survey supports research showing "professional" readers prefer print over screens

A recent, nationwide survey of more than 800 law firms by a consulting firm called Expense Reduction Analysts found that "most firms plan to keep [library books] rather than rely [exclusively] on electronic research." The ABA Journal has the story here. The survey further found that:

'The general belief was that the managing partners and the lawyers who have been there a while really like the printed materials and everyone else would like to go to online research libraries,' [said the survey administrator]. But the survey didn’t find a huge difference between the views of managers and those of administrative staffers. Fifty-eight percent of the managers saw a need for physical, printed libraries, compared to 50 percent of support and administrative staffers

The survey also found that attorneys still print much of what they find on the screen to read later even when those documents are "unimportant."

I happen to be doing a lot of research right now on the pros and cons of screen versus print reading. There's a robust consensus based on surveys of "professional" readers (e.g. researchers, scholars and others who read for a living) that serious readers use the screen to skim lots of material quickly but then print the things they want to read more deeply. The research also suggests this is not the result of generational differences but instead reflects the superior psycho-ergonomics of print over the screen. It's possible our brains may one day develop the ability to read deeply from a screen but that's not the case yet.

In his book "Legal Writing for the Re-Wired Brain," Robert Dubose posits that attorneys need to affect a "hybrid" reading style that allows them to shift from screen to print depending on whether they are skimming the document or need to read it more closely.

The recent law firm survey also confirms the opinion of experts like Professor Robert Darnton,  Director of the Harvard University Library who says that e-libraries will not entirely replace print ones. Instead, both formats will co-exist in the same building although the mix of e-books to p-books will vary depending on the particular needs of each library's users. I also highly recommend Professor Darnton's "The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future" which offers a fascinating history of print and reading.

What do you think? Are your reading habits consistent with the "hybrid" style noted above or do you follow a different mix between print and screen? And does this suggest we need to continue to expose law students to the benefits of print?

Hat tip to the ABA Journal.



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