Among the many law school rites of passage, 1Ls everywhere will have to buy their copy of The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation. Whether your undergrad experience left you fluent in APA, MLA, or another citation style, only The Bluebook will do in law school. As its subtitle explains, The Bluebook is a uniform system of citation that will allow you to properly cite cases, statutes, and secondary sources in both the legal practice and academic writing. (For a great primer on The Bluebook, read Ben Nelson’s How to Get Answers From The Bluebook.) Whether your statute is from Iowa or Nigeria, whether you are citing the Federalist Papers or the latest blog, The Bluebook is your first and last stop for proper citation. You will have plenty of time to get acquainted with your Bluebook, but you have a choice – the traditional spiral-bound, print version or the online version? The choice is up to you, but here are some considerations:
The Bluebook is now in its 20th edition, which came out in 2015. If you are going with the print version, you will want to get the current edition. Changes made between editions tend to be minor, but your professors will expect Bluebooking precision and even minor differences can cost you. While I am not sure how much value it adds, the online version allows you to toggle between the 18th, 19th, and 20th editions.
In terms of cost, there is no clear winner. The print version sells for $38.50. You may be able to find a used 20th edition at this point, but law students tend to hold on to their copy, so your options could be limited. The online version costs $36 for 1 year, $46 for 2 years, and $55 for 3 years. Also, you can renew annually for $17.
The print version is an easy to use reference book. It is small, lightweight, and its spiral binding allows it to lay flat. Its quick reference guides on the front and back cover offer a wealth of information – experienced 2Ls and 3Ls rely on them nearly exclusively. Color coded pages allow you to easily distinguish the blue pages, which cover non-academic legal citation style, from the white pages, which cover academic scholarship citation style.
The online version provides much of the typical online functionality you would expect – everything is linked and searchable. Also, there is nothing to download, it is accessible through your browser anywhere the internet is available. The interface does not look all that impressive, but it is easy to navigate and read on-screen. For those who have used the print version, the online version tracks very closely to the print version in most respects. For example, where the print version has front and back covers with “quick reference” materials, the online version offers a prominently placed “quick style guide” that provides much of the same information. Also, there is a main tab entitled “Bluepages” to parallel the print edition, and the background of those webpages is blue. It does have a fully expandable table of contents that allows you to maintain a sense of your orientation. The index allows you another way to easily access the content.
Classroom/Law Review Training Use
If you are being taught or trained on The Bluebook by a professor or law review training team, the online version has gone to great lengths to be interchangeable with the print version in content and layout. Every main header is tagged with both the rule number and the page number it would be on in the print version. Additionally, you can add electronic bookmarks and annotations to your online version much like you can add a tab or jot down a note on your print version.
For the New Bluebook User
Personal preference probably dictates, but starting with a print version might be most beneficial for the new Bluebooker. Grasping the structure of The Bluebook and learning the ins-and-outs of such an every-day resource may come easier with a print version in hand. No matter how tech savvy a new Bluebook user is, if you are struggling through a legal writing assignment on-screen, having a hardcopy bluebook siting on your desk with a few tabs seems like the best option. Even if you take your laptop to all of your classes, juggling the Bluebook screen with your notes would lead me to recommend a print version at least for 1L year. Also, in reality, despite the inefficiency, new users learn a lot about The Bluebook through all the required flipping of pages. Looking for the right rule, you will stumble upon rules that you did not know even existed, and that process will help you to more quickly internalize The Bluebook’s full offerings.
For the Experienced Bluebook User
For a more advanced Bluebooker, the online version might be an option to explore. If you know generally what is in the bluebook and how it is structured, you may gain some efficiency using the online version. I have personally enjoyed not having to flip quite so much when looking for a particular rule or a given table. While all the flipping serves a learning function early on, those benefits diminish over time.
Whichever version you choose, best of luck learning the mysterious and exacting Bluebook!
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