The law library remains a two format world. As much as the promise of ebooks has been made, delivery has been awkward or impossible. We largely rely on print for texts and proprietary web apps for everything else. Our law library, like many courthouse law libraries, serves an indistinct population. Over the years, I’ve tried to watch for changes that might make ebooks more of an option.

Format First

First, let’s dispense with the legal publishers. Even if there was 100% overlap between the print and ebook formats of a text, which there aren’t, the publishers have taken a variety of approaches. Some are unworkable in a courthouse or membership library setting.

Thomson Reuters’ decision to go with its proprietary Proview app-based approach essentially locks courthouse law libraries out. LexisNexis has taken a more open approach with PDFs, so there are some possibilities there. In addition, LexisNexis has partnered with ebook delivery platform Overdrive.

In Canada, there is also Irwin Law, which licenses its excellent texts using the Deslibris platform for delivery. We trialed an Irwin ebook implementation but it was suboptimal. In the US, Fastcase has opened a bookstore and is selling its Full Court Press in PDF form.

The format is key. Before you can even get to a delivery platform discussion, you need a format you can deliver. PDF seems to be what most publishers have landed on. The blue ribbon approach is CALI’s, which provides PDF, ePub, and other formats. Max flex.

The benefit of an ePub format can’t be overstated. If we are to deliver ebooks that are accessible to a wide audience (including the public), they need to be adaptable and accessible. Publishers may like PDFs for DRM reasons but they’re a distant second in preference for delivery.

We have seen some texts that started out in a print format shift to an online, browser-based format. Not quite database, nor a discrete ebook format either. The upside to that approach is that you can proxy your researchers into the online login. The downside: it’s not an ebook.

I’m sure you’ve seen examples but if not, take a look at Proquest’s O’Reilly (f/k/a Safari) technology collection. Individual licenses can download books for portability. Institutional licenses, like those held by many public libraries, require reading in a web browser.

I don’t really consider web browser-based texts to be ebooks. The ebook format is intended to be portable. If I can’t access it untethered from the internet, it fails the ebook format test.

On the ebook front, then, we’ve got some obvious limitations when we talk to our funders about why we are still buying print:

  • not all titles are available in a portable ebook format
  • not all ebook formats can be delivered without being connected to an individual
  • not all ebook platforms are reliable as an alternative delivery platform

Ironically, I received this email from Thomson Reuters just after this post went live:

Proview eBooks are a 1 user per license product. This means that if you have, say, 2 copies of [title], and you’ve already selected two users for access [dw: two librarians], only those two users may access the eBook through Proview. In order to add additional users, you’ll need to remove an existing user and replace them with a new one.

For a law library that serves thousands of individuals who are not employees of the library or its corporate organization, you can see the issues with scaling ebooks that require individual licenses.

Format Delivery

I was in a very small archaelogical library this spring. The entire collection was excavated Roman stones. They were packed into one large room. And there was no signage.

There was a certain, “well, look at that” surprise when I saw that they’d taken their signage issue and converted it to an ebook. A proper ebook. This eliminated all of the infrastructure for sign posts, and restrictions on how much you could say about an object.

The museum had sideloaded the ebook onto a Kindle. The Kindle was placed in what appeared to be a homemade custom cover, which allowed for it to be RFID or tattle-taped.

That’s it. That’s the goal.

Anyone who wandered into that museum could pick up a Kindle and read along. They didn’t need their own device. They didn’t need their own credentials. They didn’t need internet connectivity. It was a perfect delivery of the ebook format. It was just like picking up a print format of the text, but digital.

It’s one reason that, while I’m excited at the possibilities of the LexisNexis Digital Library (powered by OverDrive), it’s still only a partial solution. First, we need ebooks that we can deliver without a proprietary wrapper. Then we need ebooks we can deliver without a user sign-in.

The LexisNexis Digital Library platform gives us some options, though. On its face, it offers the ability to deliver ebooks through remote access. OverDrive will enable researchers with smart phones or tablets to access the collection. It would probably mean that a courthouse library would need to adopt a membership library approach, so that each potential user has authentication information.

[N.B.: LexisNexis Digital Library isn’t available yet in Canada, so this is not based on my use so much as my understanding from marketing materials]

The ideal would still be a device that is independent of any given individual. Imagine the amount of space you could repurpose – or release to the court – if you could collapse part of your print collection onto a portable device in your library.

I know the legal publishing world will have met the ebook challenge when I can retire a linear set of shelving and replace it with an Android tablet and an ebook reading app. I don’t care if the titles are all in a practice area or have some other relationship. Until then, I’ll keep watching and wondering about whether ebooks will every fully mature in the legal information space. And I’ll continue explaining to funders why we still need to buy books.