Each Lawyer, Her Format

I can’t tell you how often I have heard that X type of legal information is only going to be available in print for five more years.  It’s wishful thinking by those who perceive legal research to be an online endeavor, or by those who wish they could spend less on legal information materials.  Format remains a a tricky element in law library collections.  It’s a constant battle of perceptions, costs, and use that seem particularly marshy in law.

One of the reasons it is so tricky is that people involved in law library collections stake out positions with generalities that make assumptions about format superiority.  The latest ones that caught my eye come from some judges in San Diego, California, a U.S. state with a large publicly-accessible courthouse law library system.

These judges used books for foot stools and sound insulation.  But the real observation is that “law books have an almost negative value.”  I’m assuming that means “books” and not that “case law” has an almost negative value.

This ranks right up there with “everything is on the internet.”  Some of my other favorites:

  • Older lawyers prefer print materials, often couched in terms of “dinosaurs” (who didn’t actually read as far as I know) and “luddites
  • Younger lawyers prefer electronic materials (insert your favorite generalized term for young people:  millenials, digital natives, etc.  I’m rooting for Gen AA to surface soon)

If it were me, these would read:

  • Some of our library’s heaviest used content is in print, due to the practice areas our lawyers tend to research in;
  • Lawyers prefer electronic materials when searching across case law and legislation, but use both print and electronic texts

Legal information is just information.  The format is the technology and the book is a pretty good technology.  I’m not going to go all Ranganathan but for those of us who collect legal information and those of us who pay for it try to explain what we’re doing, hearing comments like that judge’s shows that, from certain perspectives, there is a tendency to aggregate lots of distinct things.  It may reflect that judge’s don’t use secondary content or treatises much, or that they can afford universal content, or it may not even reflect a reality of anything at all, but it creates the perception that law books are of little value to everyone.

Format Benefits Vary, by Researcher and Library

Print books have a huge value to the legal publishers, who continue to bridge their transition to online materials by selling this high cost product to organizations who will still pay for it.  The value is diminishing, as this Thomson Reuters earning call indicates, with online at 42%, “solutions” at 44%, and print dropping 8% down to 14% (I’m pretty sure that’s not the split in Canada).

Print isn’t for everyone.  It could be that it’s too expensive to acquire, too expensive to maintain.  It can be fiddly to use unless you understand the conventions used to organize it.  That’s certainly the case in libraries where weeding has become the primary method, other than staff attrition, to align 2% funding increases with 10% publication increases.   It could be that you research using a search engine and your practice area relies on case law, or some other time-sensitive content that print lags behind.

Electronic isn’t for everyone either.  While the publishers are moving content into online platforms, or from legacy platforms to emerging platforms, they’re failing to rethink how their content is being used.  E-books that are tied to online platforms requiring browser access, or to proprietary apps that are tied to individual researchers exclude types of law libraries and users.  Electronic databases that inhibit movement around the content in ways that were possible in print, or surface so much information that, like web search, it becomes more difficult to understand why you’re seeing certain results.

Most law libraries carry both still, although there are some that have gone entirely electronic.  There’s no problem with that, but it’s not because other formats don’t have value.

Be More Clear

I don’t really know how lawyers in another law library use their materials, or how the public used law books in San Diego, and so on.  When I can, I grab statistics – sometimes off the open web through annual or other reports, sometimes from colleagues who are comfortable sharing – so that I can understand usage better:

  • what books are off the shelf and counted for in-house circulation
  • what books are off the shelf for external circulation

We’re not always great advocates of our own activity, by failing to measure what we are doing.  I’m interested in what libraries are doing even when they only do a circulation count for a two-week period each year, but it’s not very useful.  It’s like the difference between a survey answered by a large pool and 35 people.

The same goes for electronic.  Like so many things in the modern law library, we have outsourced this data collection because we primarily guide researchers to commercial data stores.  In theory those publishers can help us with usage data.

In reality, even really deep usage data in a really expensive legal publisher database is less useful than I can get for a web site using Google Analytics.  The publishers are still just counting people walking through a door, but they can’t tell me the order in which the doors are opened and traversed.  This would be particularly useful to determine whether the long tail of content the publishers are aggregating really has any purpose in the library’s collection.

E-books are similar, because although we know what the general population does with fiction electronic titles, only someone engaged in grandstanding would suggest that those reflect what’s going on in any given law library.  We can take information – like the apparent softness of the e-book market, and the delivery of legal e-books as if they were fiction novels – to make educated guesses about how our researchers will use them.  But until we dig in and get some data, we won’t really know.

I was speaking to someone recently about law library funding and I asked a simple question:  are you willing to pay for something that doesn’t have any measurable value, but people will feel good about because you have it in your collection?  (think just-in-case collection)  A business would generally say “no”, unless they had a particular goodwill mandate that enabled them to throw money at expensive law books.

Another way to put that:  are you willing to pay for something that trul has “almost negative value”?  I think the answer in most law libraries would be “no” as well, although we might not all agree on what that something is.

So what about format?

The San Diego’s judge’s statement isn’t that novel.  Anyone who has worked around law libraries has heard positioning – for purchasing or keeping or opposed to it – that is similarly flawed.  Formats will matter to different audiences differently, and they will matter to those audiences differently based on their content.  Sometimes we make format choices that aren’t ideal for the researchers, because the content + format + cost balance requires it.   But we can distinguish generalities that are designed for posturing and those that really represent the state of collections in any given law library.