Pre-digital lawntilde;: how prior information technologies have shaped access to and the nature of law

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Wolfram, Modern Legal Ethics

This book was prepared for the institutional library. While written out of its author's experience, its completion required the resources of a large law school library. Designed for institutional ownership, it has no space for personal notes. Indeed, to place notes in it would in most settings constitute an offense. This book is built to stand up – not lie down. It carries its identity on its spine. The text's references assume ready access to a vast array of information resources; indeed, it is fair to say that the book's principal intended use is with such resources at hand. Point after point, it provides references to case reports, statutes, rules, and even agency material. Indeed, for many readers, its job is done once it has brought them to authoritative statements found in these other sources. While written in relatively jargon-free English, it is still a professional's book, largely because of its dependence on a professional's information resources and understanding of how to access them.

This last work reveals even more clearly than the prior three that during the twentieth century legal information has come to be delivered not so much through books (i.e., individual volumes or even a series of them) as through libraries. At the turn of the century, a strong lawyer's or law school library (At that time, they were essentially the same.) filled a few bookcases. Forty years ago there were still law librarians who maintained that their experience and memories made card catalogs unnecessary. The majority of U.S. law libraries had no classification scheme as late as the mid-fifties. In truth, it is only recently that large collections of law books, intentionally interconnected by their publishers and overseen by information professionals, have become the fully integrated information systems we know. The size and integration of these systems constitute at once a source of great strength and serious limitation. They provide up-to-date and comprehensive legal information of an unparalleled quality to those who have access to them and who possess the necessary skills to use their collections. The information system they embody works far less well for ordinary citizens and all who live and work any distance away. The public institutions founded in the U.S. to expand access to legal information – notably court and county law libraries – have been seriously underfunded. They have, as a consequence, inadequate collections, staffing, and services. Finally, in an era that sees increasing value in global access to domestic legal information, the costs of porting useful portions of any nation's law (i.e., significant library fractions) internationally loom frustratingly large.


A short twenty-four years ago, LEXIS first offered U.S. lawyers a computer-based federal tax library, including digital counterparts to all four of the preceding sample types. It was a novelty then. From our current vantage point, we know that it represented momentous and unsettling change. In the ensuing years, computer-based law systems moved from being powerful print supplements used by a few to print replacements relied on by many. These digital delivery systems (whether employing disk, online connection, or some combination of the two) are neither static nor lumpy. They are fast and flexible and reach effortlessly across great distances. They have become mature, broad, deep, and far more current than their printed counterparts.

Within reach if not present reality is the creation of computer-based legal information systems offering access to a complete set of judicial opinions, statutes, regulations, as well as useful expert opinion in many fields of law. Since many law-making bodies now produce law digitally (preparing final versions of their statutes, regulations, or judgments on computers) one can imagine widespread access to authoritative versions of their output directly from the source. Characteristics of the digital medium may make it possible for the language of the law to be at once more available and more understandable to ordinary people.

The few samples examined here do suggest that the activity we call law has changed as the technology available for communicating legal information has improved. But they neither assure that the direction of change will be more effective distribution nor that working out the proper roles for public and private sectors will be swift and easy. It is the prospect of the former that makes it so critical that the latter be addressed.

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