Kill Loose-Leafs. Use Wikis.

Kill Loose-Leafs. Use Wikis. by David Whelan Susannah Tredwell’s post at about the future of loose-leafs has gotten me thinking more about that expensive mainstay of the law library collection. For those of you who do not know what a loose-leaf is, think of a binder (usually multiple volumes) that gets updated periodically. They initially met a need for keeping information current between full releases of an edition of a given law book. The benefit to the legal researcher is currency. The benefit to the publisher can be revenue, since many publishers charge for each release. In some cases, the releases are weekly. Kill Loose-Leafs.  Use Wikis.

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You can read Susannah’s post here.

Secondary Materials Are Underutilized

The problem with loose-leaf publications is that there are electronic databases.  Some legal publishers have migrated their loose-leaf texts into their database offerings but they don’t seem to be very effective.  Usage of online databases in Ontario law libraries seems to be heavily focused on primary law (no surprise) but secondary content makes up a small minority (10-15%) of all usage.

There remains an ongoing discussion about why lawyers do not seem to use secondary materials.  We’re taught to use them as a starting point in law school but somewhere between learning and practicing, lawyers appear to shift their focus.  Librarians continue to harp on the need to train, as if we had some holy insight into the problem.  I could be wrong (surprise surprise) but my guess would be that lawyers know the secondary materials are available and they generally don’t find them to be useful.  As the practice of law becomes specialized, lawyers are probably less likely to find themselves in unknown territory.

Paper Looseleafs Are Poor Resources

Other legal publishers have not even made the transition, so they continue to churn out new pages for library staff to file.  Some problems with this ongoing collection method:

  • The cost per page of staff time is probably not recoverable in the value that the supplemental pages actual provide;
  • Loose-leafs enable publishers to hide behind the unknown of changes in the law.  If there are significant changes in the middle of the year, you may find a sudden flurry of updates.  These have obvious budgetary implications where the legal publisher has chosen to charge per release, rather than all you can eat like CCH Canadian does.  If libraries have reputational problems with their organizations, it’s in part because we cannot say, we will spend $X this year.  At the start of the year, you have no idea what your print loose-leaf activity is going to be.
  • Theoretically, new content for loose-leafs is generated in an electronic format (word processor, whatever).  It should then be uploaded to its online home.  It is also printed, packaged, sorted, and shipped to a library.  It seems crazy to pay for a product that has this sort of delay if an electronic equivalent is available online.
  • A constant concern, sometimes confirmed, is that these updates do not actually reflect any new commentary.  Instead, they cause repagination of the valuable commentary with additional citations to cases, legislation, or other information.  Much of this is accessible electronically and would appear to anyone researching primary law.  Other than creating make work for library staff and extra revenue for the publisher, it probably does not have any substantive value to a researcher.

Drop the Format, Grab the Content

Few people would argue that the content created by authors of these volumes is not valuable.  But it’s time to drop the loose-leaf, print and binder format.  If I was to think of a current online analog to the loose-leaf, it would be the wiki.  It enables content consumption a section at a time, it can be organized in a hierarchical way so that it can be browsed, and it can be searched.

It can even replicate some of the serendipity that books provide, where related links or taxonomic metadata can enable aggregation of information from beyond adjacent pages.

If a loose-leaf was truly read like a book, rather than harvested for a section or a chapter by itself, this might not make sense.  But that doesn’t seem to be the future of the secondary text, if it was ever the past.  Which is not to say that authors don’t need to write in a linear way or with some coherent form, as the comments to this post by Gary Rodrigues, also on Slaw, suggest.  But just because it is created that way doesn’t mean that it will be consumed that.

Using wikis does not even mean that the publisher needs to create a resource segmented apart from its other legal research databases or services.  If a publisher can aggregate content from multiple sources in response to a search query, or to enable browsing of aggregate resources, the wiki should be able to fit within this environment.  

A wiki can also provide the necessary break from trying to replicate, often poorly, the linear path of a secondary text in an online format.  Again, it’s not that the content cannot be read linearly, but that doesn’t appear to be how lawyers actually use it.  So why emulate an environment that doesn’t enhance use of the content?

My ideal future for loose-leafs would be to see them go away.  LexisNexis (US) has already started selling some of its multi-volume loose-leafs in cheaper, perfect bound editions.  As Susannah’s posting suggests, many libraries have started going to annual contents, which is essentially to buy a single copy of the loose-leaf, skip updates, and then buy a new edition in the future.  If that’s the pattern, then publishers may want to convert these loose-leafs into permanent volumes.  Leave the updating to electronic resources that enable the content to stay in its original format, can reduce overall operating costs (and hopefully operating expenses for libraries).  Even better, ditch the print entirely for thes

e texts and find a better way to provide them online.  Look at how they are being consumed, not just how they have to be created.

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