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I, like many librarians, love books. By that I mean I love physical books. I love the feel of paper in my hand. I love the smell of books. When I attended library school, there was no doubt in my mind that I would work in a place surrounded by shelf after shelf of beautiful books. I was confident that I would be able to transfer that love of books to a new generation.
That’s not how things turned out. Without recounting exactly how I got here, I should say that I am a technology librarian, and have been since even before I graduated library school. Technology is where I found my calling, and where libraries seem to need the most help. As I delve deeper into the world of library technology, particularly in the academic setting, I am increasingly forced to confront an uncomfortable reality: Print formats are inferior to electronic. And in some of my darker moments, I may even go so far as to echo the comments of Jeff Jarvis in his book “What Would Google Do” when he writes: “print sucks.”
On page 71, talking about the burden of physical “stuff,” Jarvis writes:
“It’s expensive to produce content for print, expensive to manufacture, and expensive to deliver. Print limits your space and your ability to give readers all they want. It restricts your timing and the ability to keep readers up-to-the-minute. Print is already stale when it’s fresh. It is one-size-fits-all and can’t be adapted to the needs of each customer. It comes with no ability to click for more. It can’t be searched or forwarded. It has no archive. It kills trees. It uses energy. And you really should recycle it, though that’s just a pain. Print sucks. Stuff sucks.”
In this paragraph, Jarvis may as well have been talking about the current state of online legal information. Although we may not have figured out the magic bullets of authenticity and preservation, the fact remains that print is a burden. In many cases, it is a burden to our governments, and our libraries.
There are good reasons to proceed cautiously towards online legal information. However, the most significant barriers to accepting new modes of publishing official legal information online, like judges’ blogging opinions, may be cultural and political. In the end, law librarians and other legal professionals can’t allow our own nostalgia and habit to stand in the way of changes that can, should, and must happen.
AALL Working Groups
As many readers may know, the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) began forming state working groups earlier this year. The purpose of those working groups was to “help AALL ensure access to electronic legal information in your state.” This is certainly a worthwhile goal, and one I obviously support. But the PDF document online, calling for formation of these working groups, sends a mixed message.
The very first duty of each working group is to “take action to oppose any plan in your state to eliminate an official print legal resource in favor of online-only unless the electronic version is digitally authenticated and will be preserved for permanent public access, or to charge fees to access legal information electronically. This is an increasingly common problem as states respond to severe budget cuts.”
Perhaps it’s just the phrasing of the document that bothered me. Rather than even providing guidance to states planning to eliminate print legal resources, AALL has set as its default position the opposition to any such plan.
In fairness, I note that the document hints that online-only legal resources might be acceptable if states don’t charge for them, or if such resources meet the rather complex standards laid out in the Association of Reporters of Judicial Decisions’ Statement of Principles.
The Association of Reporters of Judicial Decisions (ARJD) published Statement of Principles: “Official” On-Line Documents in February 2007, revised in May 2008. Most tellingly, in Principle 3 of the Statement they write: “Print publication, because of its reliability, is the preferred medium for government documents at present.”
Later in the document we find out why print is so reliable. Talking about electronic versions, the ARJD says they should not be considered official unless they are “permanent in that they are impervious to corruption by natural disaster, technological obsolescence, and similar factors and their digitized form can be readily translated into each successive electronic medium used to publish them.”
Without question, electronic material must be able to survive a natural disaster. The practice of storing information on a single server or keeping all backups in the same facility could be problematic. But emerging trends and best practices could help safeguard against these problems. In addition, programs like LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) can help alleviate some of these concerns by making sure many copies of each digital item exist at multiple geographic locations.
Also, digital format obsolescence has largely been overstated. PDF documents are not going anywhere anytime soon. Even conservative estimates establish PDF as a reliable format for the foreseeable future.
On the other side of the equation, is print impervious to natural disaster, or even technological obsolescence? Of course not. At Yale, with our rare books library and large historical collection, I have witnessed first hand the damage time can do to a physical book. Even more importantly, books in the last hundred years have been published so cheaply they may fall apart even sooner than books published centuries ago.
Print and Electronic Costs
The reality is that moving to online-only legal information is a good thing for everyone involved in producing and consuming such information. The burden of print is not limited to the costs forced upon states that produce it; that burden is also borne by libraries and citizens who consume it.
As mentioned above respecting the AALL working group document, many states are already looking at going online-only to cut costs, and why shouldn’t they? With current budget situations across the country being what they are, printing costs being particularly high, and electronic publishing costs being so low, of course states are looking at saving money by ending needless printing.
But libraries would also benefit from the cost savings of governments’ moving to electronic formats. Not only do libraries currently have to subsidize printing costs by paying for the “official” print copies of legal materials; libraries also have to pay for the shelf space, as well as manpower to process incoming material and place it on the shelf, and may also have to pay additional costs for preserving the physical material. Not to mention the fact that we may pay for additional services that furnish access to the exact same material in an electronic format.
The costs involved in dealing with print legal resources are well known to most librarians. So why aren’t we clamoring for governments to publish online-only legal information?
Officialness, Authenticity, Preservation, and Citeability
Of course there are genuine concerns about online-only legal information. The big sticking points seem to be (in no particular order) officialness, authenticity, preservation, and citeability. Each issue is worthy of, and has been the subject of, much discussion.
Officiality may be in some ways the easiest and most difficult hurdle for online-only legal information to leap. To make an online version of legal material official, an appropriate authoritative body need only declare that version “official.” The task seems simple enough.
The more difficult part may be political. With organizations like AALL and ARJD currently opposing online-only options, that action may be politically difficult. Persuading lawyers, judges, and legislatures to approve such a declaration could be even more difficult. Can you imagine a bill, regulation, or some other action making a blog the “official” outlet for a particular court’s opinions?
The question of authenticity is more difficult to deal with from a technological perspective, although there has been interesting work done with respect to PDFs, electronic signatures, and public and private keys. The Government Printing Office (GPO) has done a great job leading the way in the area of authenticity: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/authentication/. The new Legislation.gov.uk site unveiled recently has taken a different approach from the GPO’s. As John Sheridan has written in an earlier post, at the moment The U.K. National Archives are not taking any steps towards authenticating the information on the Legislation.gov.uk site, but they recognize the need to address the issue at some point. John Joergensen at Rutgers-Camden has taken yet another approach. And Claire Germain, in a recent paper about authentication practices respecting international legal information (pdf), states that those practices vary throughout the world. Thus the prickly question of authenticating online legal information is an issue that’s not going away any time soon.
AALL and ARJD have made a big deal about preservation of online legal information, an issue that’s important for librarians, too. Unfortunately, this is another area where no good answer exists to guide us. As Sarah Rhodes wrote earlier this year, “our current digital preservation strategies and systems are imperfect – and they most likely will never be perfected.”
The Library of Congress National Digital Information Infrastructure & Preservation Program (NDIIPP) has some helpful resources. The Legal Information Preservation Alliance (LIPA) also provides some good guidance in this area. However, many librarians are still reluctant to accept that digital preservation practices may enable us to end our reliance on print.
A similar reluctance can be seen in resistance to the Durham Statement, which — though directed at law reviews — also says something about other kinds of online legal information. Most notably, Margaret Leary of the University of Michigan chose not to sign the Durham Statement, and discussed her decision to continue to rely on print at a recent AALL program. In a listserv posting quoted in Richard Danner’s recent paper, Ms. Leary asserted: “I do not agree with the call to stop publishing in print, nor do I think we have now or will have in the foreseeable future the requisite ‘stable, open, digital formats’.” Similarly, Richard Leiter explains that he signed the Durham Statement with an asterisk because of the statement’s call for an end to the printing of law reviews.
What constitutes ‘stable, open, digital formats’ for the purposes of satisfying some librarians is unclear. As I mentioned earlier, a number of digital formats currently fit this description. This makes me think that there’s something else going on here, a resistance to abandoning print for other reasons.
Citeability also becomes an issue as print legal information disappears. If there is no print reporter volume in which an opinion is issued, then how would one cite to an opinion (setting aside for a moment Lexis and Westlaw citations)?
However, efforts towards implementing “medium-neutral legal citation formats” have already been made. According to Ivan Mokanov’s recent VoxPopuLII post, most citations in Canada are of a neutral format. In the United States, LegisLink.org has made an effort to improve online citations, as Joe Carmel describes in his recent post. Work on URN:LEX and other standards has resulted in some progress towards dealing with the citeability issue. Organizations like the AALL Electronic Legal Information Access & Citation Committee also deserve credit for taking this on. [Editor's Note: Those organizations have produced universal citation standards -- such as the AALL Universal Citation Guide -- which have been adopted by a number of U.S. jurisdictions.] Even The Bluebook supports alternative citation formats. For example, rule 10.3.3, “Public Domain Format,” specifies how to cite to a public domain or “medium-neutral format.” The Bluebook even goes so far as to allow citation in a jurisdiction’s specified format.
But despite all this work, nothing has yet stuck.
The Next Step
One thing you’ll notice respecting all of these issues is that they are currently unsettled. While AALL and ARJD have both suggested that they would look favorably on online-only legal information if it were official, authenticated, and preserved (they do not mention citeability), there is no indication of when we will reach a level of achievement on these issues that would be satisfactory to these organizations. Can governments, libraries, and citizens afford to wait?
Asking states to continue to bear the burden of publishing material in print as they run out of funding, and libraries to bear the expense of preserving that print, is irresponsible. While we might not have all of the answers now, we certainly have enough to move forward in an intelligent manner.
The National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) has been working on an Authentication and Preservation of State Electronic Legal Materials Act. [Editor's Note: The Chair of the Act's Drafting Committee is Michele L. Timmons, the Revisor of Statutes for the State of Minnesota, and its Reporter is Professor Barbara Bintliff of the University of Texas School of Law.] According to the Study Committee’s Report and Recommendations for the Act’s Drafting Committee, the goal of the draft should be to “describ[e] minimum standards for the authentication and preservation of online state legal materials.” This seems like an appropriate place to start.
Rather than setting unrealistic or vague expectations, the minimum standards provided by the draft act seem to allow some flexibility for how states could address some of these issues. As opposed to working towards a “stable and open digital format,” which seems more a moving target than an attainable goal, the draft act sets forth an outline for how states can get started with publishing official and authentic online-only legal information. While far from finished, the draft act appears to be a step in the right direction.
What Is the Real Issue?
I think the real sticking point on this matter is mental or emotional. It comes from an uneasiness about how to deal with new methods of publishing legal information. For hundreds of years, legal information has been based in print. Even information available on the Lexis and Westlaw online services has its roots in print, if not full print versions of the same material. It’s as if the lack of a print or print-like version will cause librarians to lose the compass that helps us navigate the complex legal information landscape.
Of course, publishing legal information electronically brings its own challenges and costs for libraries. Electronic memory and space are not free, and setting up the IT infrastructure to consume, make available, and preserve digital materials can be costly. But in the long run, dealing with electronic material can and will be much easier and less costly for all involved, as well as giving greater access to legal information to the citizens who need it.
Question: Is there a good reason why judges should not be blogging their opinions?
Although he was the co-chair of the ARJD committee that produced the Statement of Principles, even Frank Wagner, the outgoing U.S. Supreme Court reporter of decisions, acknowledges that “budgetary constraints may eventually force most governmental units to abandon the printed word in favor of publishing their official materials exclusively online.” He also recognizes that the GPO’s work in this area may put an end to the printed U.S. Reports sooner than other “official publications.”
So were an appropriate authority to make them official, and some form of authentication were decided on, and methods of preservation and citation had been taken into account, would you feel comfortable with judges’ blogging their opinions?
We have to get over our unease with new formats for publishing online legal information. We have to stop handcuffing governments and libraries by placing unrealistic and unattainable expectations on them for publishing online legal information. We have to prepare ourselves for a world where online is the only outlet for official legal information.
I still enjoy taking a book off the shelf and reading. I enjoy flipping through and browsing the pages. But nostalgia and habit are not valid strategies for libraries of the future.