A January article in Boing Boing talked about loose-leaf publications, marveling about their existence in the same way that the average marine biologist once marveled about the continuing existence of the coelacanth. I’m so used to having loose-leafs in a law firm library that I hadn’t considered that they might be considered a novelty elsewhere, but it started me wondering: are loose-leafs going to become the legal library equivalent of the coelacanth? Legal loose-leaf publishing has been around at least since 1915. These early loose-leaf services allowed legal publishers to produce up-to-date consolidations of legislation without having to reprint an entire book every time changes were made to the legislation. In the days before consolidated legislation was freely available, this was a truly valuable service.
A recent (and decidedly unscientific) survey of law libraries in the Vancouver area revealed that over the past eighteen months the majority had cancelled some of their loose-leaf updating services; some services were cancelled outright whereas with others the contents were now being replaced on an annual (or biennial) basis. The chief reason for doing so was cost; for loose-leafs that are updated four or more times a year, the cost of the updates can be double or triple what it would cost to replace the entire contents of the loose-leaf once a year. Whilst the 2009 economic downturn was the catalyst for a number of the cancellations, the general feeling seemed to be that the cancellation of loose-leafs was a trend that was only going to continue.
It should be kept in mind that not all loose-leaf updates are charged for on a per update basis. Other loose-leaf subscriptions are charged for on an annual basis meaning that the library pays a set yearly amount no matter how many updates come.
For many of these cancelled loose-leafs, the perception was that the regular updates did not provide value for money. In some loose-leafs consolidated legislation makes up a significant portion of the publication. Given that this consolidated legislation can be found online for free, and with the added bonus of (generally) being more current than the text in the loose-leaf, a release that contains only legislative material is not considered a good use of money. Both staff time and the library budget dollars can be better used elsewhere.
Another reason for cancellation was the staff time taken to file these updates. Although loose-leaf filing may appear to be straightforward, complicated page numbering and Byzantine filing instructions may mean result in materials being misfiled or inadvertently discarded. If the entire contents of the loose-leaf are replaced on a yearly basis, misfiling ceases to be a problem.
An additional concern is the fact that pages of loose-leafs do go missing, either due to misfiling or someone taking the pages out to photocopy and neglecting to replace them. Again, staff and lawyer time is wasted trying to get copies of the missing pages. Worse, if a page should have been replaced but wasn’t, a researcher may inadvertently rely on information that is out of date or wrong.
So, given these all concerns, what does the future of the loose-leaf look like?
Publishers are now offering the content found in traditional print loose-leaf services in different formats, including CD-ROM and online. Online “loose-leafs” are automatically updated by the publisher with no effort required by the library or the end user. With an electronic version of a loose-leaf there is no need to file materials and there are no problems with missing pages. These electronic versions of loose-leafs may exist as stand-alone subscriptions (e.g. Carswell’s eReference Library) or as part of an electronic subscription (e.g. Canada Law Book’s Labour Spectrum includes Brown and Beatty’s Canadian Labour Arbitration). Electronic versions of loose-leafs can take advantage of hypertext links, allowing publishers to either integrate materials from their own database systems or link to materials available freely elsewhere (for example, on CanLII).
Although there are a number of advantages to these electronic subscriptions, they do pose some challenges for librarians. One important one is the way in which online loose-leafs are licensed. With the print version, multiple lawyers can use a single copy of a loose-leaf publication. With an electronic version of the same publication, this might not be the case. Some publishers base their charges on the number of potential users, the cost of which can end up being prohibitively expensive. If a library has a loose-leaf that is used by a number of lawyers infrequently, but the licensing agreement for the electronic version requires a licence for every lawyer who might use the product, the print version may end up being more cost effective.
Publications that are currently provided in a loose-leaf format do not have to become electronic publications. They could instead be printed as books with yearly supplements (as is already done by a number of British and American publishers). Changing to a book format means no staff filing time, no missing pages, and (ideally) lower costs. Another solution is to remove legislative materials that can easily be obtained elsewhere from loose-leafs; this would reduce the amount of staff time spent filing and ideally reduce the costs of the loose-leaf updates.
Over the past eighteen months, many law libraries have dealt with cutbacks that have forced them to re-evaluate their collections policies. Publishers could make their publications more attractive to libraries through innovations that address budget concerns; loose-leafs would seem to be a prime candidate for such innovations. That does not mean the loose-leaf format as we know it is dead. Although it is probable that the number of publications in loose-leaf format will decrease over the next few years, there will always be situations where the format serves a useful purpose.