Book Review: Parchment, Paper, Pixels: Law and the Technologies of Communication by Peter Tiersma

Peter M. Tiersma.  Parchment, Paper, Pixels:  Law and the Technologies of Communication.  The University of Chicago Press.  June 2010.  Hardcover.  256p.  $35.00. ISBN: 9780226803067.

“There is a close relationship between the nature of a text and how that text tends to be interpreted.”  This is one of the primary themes in Peter Tiersma’s Parchment, Paper, Pixels, which traces the evolution of legal texts in their migration from parchment, to paper, to pixels.  Tiersma, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in California, focuses his attention on four core texts:  wills, contracts, statutes, and judicial opinions.  For each text, he describes its origins, its historical development, and the current trends that are shaping its nature and treatment today.  It is a fascinating read for anyone interested in law, language, legal history, textual interpretation, and the transformative role of technology.  Its ability to touch on so many topics of interest to lawyers and non-lawyers alike make it a worthwhile purchase for any law library (academic, public, and law firm) and for other academic and public libraries, as well.

Parchment, Paper, Pixels is well-organized and systematic in its approach.  Tiersma lays the foundation for his work by discussing the differences between speech, writing, and text.  Each chapter that follows is devoted to analyzing one of the four core texts:  wills, contracts, statutes, and judicial opinions.  He demonstrates how each text has undergone the process of “textualization,” which he describes as the “tendency for the text of those writings to become increasingly authoritative.”  Tiersma contends that texts generally follow a three-step process from (i) being a purely oral arrangement, to (ii) serving as evidence of the arrangement, to (iii) becoming the sole authority of the arrangement.

Tiersma’s analysis yields important insights on the unique nature of legal texts and how ever-increasing access to accurate copies of texts has affected how lawyers and judges utilize and interpret them.  In tracing each text’s history, Tiersma shows how the level of textualization differs among the texts.  For example, he describes how wills tend to be much more textualized than many contracts, and how United States common law is more textualized than English common law.

Tiersma also highlights how the textual conventions of the legal world differ from ordinary textual practices, and how modern technology can widen the gap between them even further.  Reference librarians who assist the public can attest to this fact; we frequently encounter individuals who are confused as to what makes a given document official or authoritative.  In each chapter, Tiersma provides proposals for reform that seek to remove the dissonance that exists among the different textual practices.  He acknowledges that some of the proposals are more feasible than others, such as his “whimsical suggestion” that “wikilaw” might be a future innovation for drafting statutes.

Parchment, Paper, Pixels would be even better if it included more discussions of pixels and their implications for legal texts.  Tiersma does not specifically address the ramifications of several issues that have received attention among law librarians in recent years, such as free PACER access, Law.gov, the Durham Statement, the advent of WestlawNext, the Government Printing Office’s use of authenticated PDFs, and the increased use of e-readers and similar devices.  Nonetheless, Tiersma’s work provides a solid historical foundation and contributes important insights on the nature of legal texts that are relevant to such issues.

The book’s descriptions of the historical underpinnings of core legal texts will help a variety of audiences:  a first-year law student who struggles to grasp the parol evidence rule, a library school student or a social sciences librarian who desires a better understanding of what sets legal texts apart from other texts, a practicing attorney who seeks to explain to a client the reason why there are so many formalities required to execute a will, and a law librarian who debates whether to transition a collection from parchment, print, or pixels.

Reviewed by David McClure, Faculty Services Librarian at the Wiener-Rogers Law Library, William S. Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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