[This post follows on from this one on law libraries as publishers]
I started pulling together an e-book version of the Department of Justice’s Charterpedia as soon as I saw it. It seems to cry out for an alternate, portable version. Also, there were some obvious opportunities to improve the text for a general legal audience. Law libraries who struggle to identify value added opportunities might consider their role as a publisher. In some cases, it’s enhancing free information to make it more broadly usable. This is the workflow I used to create an ebook based on Charterpedia.
The first thing you need is a platform. I have used WordPress and Pressbooks in the past, and Pressbooks has been used by a number of open textbook sites. Both are open source. Both are free to acquire.
When I first installed the Pressbooks WordPress plugin a couple of years ago, it was pretty straight forward. Since they have pulled the plugin from the WordPress site, it’s a lot more fiddly to get running and their documentation seems to have lapsed somewhat.
This time round – because of technical problems with the export of Pressbooks – I tried the Anthologize plugin. It’s easier in some ways, but less featured. However, it is easier in that you can drop it into any WordPress and create a book out of any collection of posts. It uses a similar part concept, so you can group content into sections.
Once you have your tool selected and installed, you can release multiple publications on a single platform. You don’t need to do it this way – you can create ebooks and edit them with programs like Sigil. But I like the WordPress-based approach because it’s the best of both worlds. At the end, readers can access a web page on any device or they can use an ebook. But I only put in the content once.
One thing that sites like Charterpedia show is that content developed by a government entity for an internal audience may not be ready for an external one. As you read through Charterpedia, there are significant supra references. That’s fine if you’re familiar with the content, but the average reader would benefit from links each time to help them with context. The same with case citations, some of which were for commercial legal publishers. Many of these were actually freely available and using a free version will make the information more broadly accessible.
At the same time, the goal isn’t to boil the ocean. If I was serving lawyers primarily dealing with criminal law, I might only convert the Legal Rights section of the Charterpedia. So the resource can be adapted and narrowed to the law library’s users.
The next thing to do is to populate the book. Once you’ve added the content in WordPress, you can organize it. This is easier in Pressbooks, where you can create chapters and other book components. I decided to make each page of Charterpedia it’s own chapter. But as I created the chapters, it became clear to me that this – like other government documents – needed some tweaking.
Here’s a book I did earlier, when I was first playing around with the concept, using the Ontario Residential Tenancies Act as a base. I took a free public statute, enhanced it with cases, and created an ebook. This is low hanging fruit:
- the base content is free
- landlord tenant is a large legal problem for many people, so an e-book may have access to justice possibilities, as well as being a library resource
- lawyers and law librarians are buying annual statutes all the time and this could be a resource to provide to lawyers that they can contrast with an actual cost they incur
The Ontario statutes are numbered in a confusing way, however, so that it is often not clear to me what the subparagraph I’m reading actually applies to. In this case, I took the liberty of renumbering the sections from (20), (1), (2) to (20), (20)(1), (20)(2).
There is a risk that doing this could fox someone who tries to cite to the subsection. However, I think it’s a small risk.
I made the same decision with Charterpedia. While the table of contents indicates Section 1, Paragraph 2(b), and so on, it’s really based around paragraphs. Because you don’t want to do any editing of the base content, if this had been text, I’d have left alone. But since it was chapter headings, I felt confident changing it.
And I didn’t change errors in the text. This is a significant point: unless you’re an expert in the field, you need to err on the side of not changing anything. So I left all the text alone, and inserted a couple of parentheticals where I was pretty sure a case citation was wrong.
The same goes for linking cases – I was very careful about getting the case right, and leaving some citations blank when I wasn’t sure. But the typical law librarian has plenty of skill – particularly when the sleuthing involves an opinion where there’s a pinpoint cite to a paragraph – to figure what might otherwise be difficult citating.
There was also the work that I didn’t do. Legal writing is often unfriendly and I didn’t try to fix that, even though I thought this ebook might have use for people unfamiliar with the law. Especially the use of supra, which is barely acceptable in a print document, and really should have been hyperlinked throughout.
The link checking took a long time. This was by far – 90% of the time expended – the heaviest lifting, because the citations weren’t uniform, they weren’t always correct, and they cited cases that weren’t published on CanLII. All of this slows down the process, so if you’re planning to do something that is link intensive – and isn’t already hyperlinked – plan for the sheer grunt work. I used:
- CanLII for Canadian case law and legislation
- the official Canadian legislation site
- the UK legislation site for 17th century links
- the Irwin Law Canadian Online Legal Dictionary for the inevitable latin
and various other sites for references to UN, EU, and U.S. law. A lot of this was repetitive. If I were doing this a second time, I’d cut the HTML into a Word document, create a Table of Authorities to eliminate the duplication, and then do the linking based on the table.
This is not the full Charterpedia. It covers Sections 1 through 14. I copied off the entire Charterpedia and may eventually link up the rest of it, but I felt that it was enough to create this example to just complete the first part.
Download the unofficial Charterpedia
[not made in association with the Canadian government or, frankly anyone, not for commercial use or re-use, although you should feel free to redistribute it as much as you like] If you are using Microsoft Edge, you may need to right-click the link and choose Save As, since Edge is an ePub reader.
Of course, once you’ve created an e-book – or populated WordPress with content – it requires updating and measuring. Your audience will determine when the content needs to get updated. I’d think annually would be fine. The Charterpedia site is already out of date, as some cases that are listed as being before the Canadian Supreme Court have already been decided.
You can monitor changes to the content using change moniting sites, like Changedetect.com. WordPress’ version control may help in doing a redline comparison of different versions, although you may not want to use it for actual editing.
Is it worth it? If no-one is going to use an epub of an online site, then that’s a project to discontinue after you’ve done some measuring. Use analytics to monitor downloads at the very least. If it seems worthwhile, you can queue up a couple more that you think your law library patrons would like.