I have been thinking about books recently while considering our firm's own print and online collection. Paul Emond’s column last week on The Future of Academic Legal Publishing addresses head-on the challenges and opportunities facing publishers of law-related books (and casebooks). In my September 2007 SLAW posting titled Digital Law Books in Canada, I suggested that we have perhaps reached a (positive) tipping point on the availability of digital law-related books with (very) roughly 10% of the major Canadian legal treatises being available in digital format. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to consider and debate this issue on a number of occasions: do libraries really need multiple copies of loose-leaf treatises in print where there is an online version? (No, we don't). I also recently had several instances where the print version was not on the shelf and I was easily able to search the digital version and "cut and paste" the relevant passage into my memo/email, further re-inforcing advantages of e-books.
I think Paul's focus on where the publishers can add value is important. With books (and casebooks), it is clearly the commentary that is provided that will not ordinarily be available for free online (unlike primary sources of law such as legislation and case law which will be free online). Combined with the ability to search by keyword, 24/7 availability, and linkability to cases or legislation in footnotes (in most cases), I think the adoption of licensed e-books in law will happen quicker than I intimated in my September 2007 post.
Out of curiosity, I checked the "e-book" holdings of the University of Toronto. They have a whopping 362,177 licensed e-books and 70,661 unlicensed e-books, for a total of 432, 838 e-books. If university students are more regularly accessing e-books online (where they seem "free" to the student because their tuition fees cover the cost of library services), demand for e-books will surely continue as they enter the workforce, particularly since the cost of e-books will be paid for by their organizations through the major online commercial legal vendors or online publishers such as ebrary or Myilibrary.
Digital case law and legislation are now the norm. Digital law journals are becoming the norm (think HeinOnline and the more limited journals on the other major legal databases). Even law-related encyclopedias are being digitized (the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest on WestlaweCARSWELL and Halsbury's Laws of England/Canada/Australia via LexisNexis).
I now need to change my normal "patter" about law books being the last print bastion . . . .