Can Free Information Make Us A Vendor-Free Library? (updated with great comments and a great PowerPoint presentation on free resources)

I think maybe it can, and  in the very near future.

I took the latest issue of The New Yorker to the gym this morning — as long as there are cardio machines (and doctors’ waiting rooms) there will be a market for print magazines — and read Malcolm Gladwell’s book review essay “Priced to Sell.  Is free the future?” about Chris Anderson’s new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

Gladwell writes:

The digital age, Anderson argues, is exerting an inexorable downward pressure on the prices of all things “made of ideas.”  Anderson does not consider this a passing trend.  Rather, he seems to think of it as an iron law: “In the digital realm you can try to keep Free at bay with laws and locks, but eventually the force of economic gravity will win.”

Is this true for law libraries?  Earlier Sergio wrote about Morrison & Foerster’s wonderful “Privacy Library”of statutes, regulations,  links to government institutions, and IGO & NGO reports. This includes all 50 states and many foreign countries.  And it’s completely Free.

Gladwell writes that Anderson’s “advice is pithy, his tone uncompromising, and his subject matter perfectly timed for a moment when old-line content providers are desperate for answers.”  And desperate for ways to continue a certain size revenue stream, I might add, particularly for companies paying for corporate acquisitions, which includes most of the big name legal publishers.

The biggest legal publisher is the West Publishing Company.  West Publishing’s old-line products have been gathering dust here at the law library for years.  Digests and reporters?  The only touching they get is from feather dusters.   Causes of Action?  No cause to keep that one.   Our patrons are making due just fine without these products, and making greater and greater use Free resources (and with so many lawyers laid-off or fearing layoff, interest and awareness of Free is greater than ever).

And it’s not just West.  Take United States Law Week for Supreme Court coverage, for example.  A fine product.  But in my opinion the very best tool for following the United States Supreme Court is Tom Goldstein’s amazing and 100% Free Scotusblog.  Rachel Maddow called it a “national treasure.”  And I agree.  Law Week is always a step or two behind.

For treatises there’s a wealth of material online for Free at the Federal Judicial Center. There’s a massive quantity of law review commentary available Free at the Legal Scholarship Network. More schools will follow Duke’s and Harvard’s lead and adopt policies called for in The Durham Statement, making law review commentary even more widely and Freely available.  Useful blogs are abundant.  The electronic casebook (and certainly statutory supplements), and  free-book, movement is gathering steam (here at Stanford we see fewer classes using assigned casebooks and more classes built around online course materials).

For other secondary sources, you could try a site like the Free Library which offers millions of free full text articles and periodicals dating from mid 1980s.  Or, you could visit and get facts and figures from over 120 published/credible sources.  How much? For Free…..

As for primary legal material, the list of Free is growing by leaps and bounds and the search abilities getting stronger and stronger.

Georgetown has put together a terrific list of Free sources:

and U.C.L.A. has too:

Tim Stanley, from Justia, has produced this really good PowerPoint presentation on Free that he shows to our advanced legal research class. (note:  slow-loading file):

And, we’ve recently created our own brief guide to free and low cost legal research, posted here.

As Gladwell writes, “. . . ‘Free’ is esentially an extended elaboration that ‘information wants to be free.”  Perhaps this is most so for law, with a tremendous and continuous Free output stream from judges, legislators, regulators, law professors and practitioners.

It’s up to us law librarians to make it stick — to make it work, and show our students how to find and effectively use Free.  It is up to us to show support for liberating information that should be Free.  We need to be willing to make a few mistakes, and maybe get a little less vendor swag, but definitley accept that prec(y)dent might be changing.

To paraphrase the words of John Soule as popularized by Horace Greeley, it’s time to “Go Free, young librarian (and not West, or even mid-West).”

7 thoughts on “Can Free Information Make Us A Vendor-Free Library? (updated with great comments and a great PowerPoint presentation on free resources)

  1. As much as “information” wants to be free, the courts want the information to be “authentic” and “trustworthy”. Jason Wilson writes about the problem of authenticating these ‘free’ research tool and makes some good points. A ‘free’ resource from a State or Federal court (like my old job at the Oklahoma Supreme Court) or from a prestigious law school is a good starting point. But, there are many ‘free’ resources out there that are good resources, but not acceptable to the courts. A good example is Wikipedia, which is free, and is generally a great initial resource for getting information on a specific topic, but, which is not allowed to be cited in the courts.
    So, let’s remember that in our zest to push against the traditional resources and encourage the baby lawyers to expand into the arena of ‘free’, they have to remember that ‘free’ is only as good as it allows you to complete your mission.

    • Thanks for the great comment, Greg. I couldn’t agree with you more. Helping our patrons evaluate their sources is an important part of our job and I failed to mention it, so I’m really glad you raised the issue.

  2. While there is certainly no shortage of commentary on the law in LSN, as a practicing attorney I would not at this point in time drop a solid treatise for free law review articles. The two materials are written for different audiences and purposes and are not interchangeable simply because they are both secondary sources providing commentary.

    • Thanks for your great comment, Julie. You’re absolutely right that there’s no substitute (yet, and maybe never) for an outstanding treatise. It’s what we always tell our students: Secondary sources first. And use the best ones at that.

      Take Witkin’s Summary of California Law, for instance. It’s often *the* perfect starting point, and it is not free. (I do recall a wonderful quote from Bernie Witkin, though. In response to Samuel Johnson’s oft-told quote “Anyone who writes for anything other than money is a blockhead,” Bernie replied (but I don’t have the exact words), “Only a blockhead would write only for money.” )

      Here at the Stanford Law Library, a small, private library that doesn’t serve the bar much, some of these expensive treatises are little used, and some never. Law review commentary, however, gets used to a great extent. So it also depends upon the library and its mission.

      I do know of a few lawyers who start their research with a law review article. It can be a starting point, maybe not the best starting point, but since everything else is interconnected via citation and citation histories, it can lead to solid research even if in a roundabout way.

  3. I totally agree with Paul’s point that we must educate attorneys and students about the wealth of information that is now available to them.

    However, I worry about the use of the word “free”. Take the Scotusblog as an example, a bog that is written by attorneys who practice at Akin Gump. While it is commendable, someone (i.e. the firm) “pays” for that blog (and they aren’t doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, it must be a tremendous marketing tool for their Supreme Court practice). Additionally, all of the government sources mentioned have been “paid” for by us with tax dollars.

    Alternatives to the traditional LX/WEST/”big publisher” model are most welcome, and are sometimes even better…but they probably aren’t free.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      Yes, of course there’s no free lunch Tax dollars pay for the laws and opinions streaming out of courthouses, legislative bodies and agency rulemaking rooms. I don’t mind paying once. But at times I do feel like singing Bernardo’s line from West Side Story, “One look at us [law librarians] and they charge twice.”

  4. Pingback: 10 Free Online Legal Research Databases: But, Mind the Gap | Oregon Legal Research Blog

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