Managing eBooks in Smaller Law Libraries

In a previous article, I discussed some issues with loose-leaf subscriptions and suggested that a number of them might well be replaced by eBooks. The term ‘eBook’ is used for electronic material produced in a wide range of formats. These formats include, but certainly are not limited to, HTML, PDF, AZW (Amazon’s proprietary format for the Kindle), EPUB (an open e-book format used by the iPad) and Mobipocket. Not all these formats are compatible with all devices. Wikipedia has an excellent list of the various formats, along with a table showing which format will work on what device.

The majority of Canadian legal eBooks produced so far have been designed for access via a desktop computer, either online or as a downloadable PDF. Examples include Carswell’s eReference Library (online), Irwin Law’s E-Library (online) and David Whelan’s Finding & Managing Legal Information on the Internet (PDF). Although price and licencing issues can be a factor, from a library point of view online eBooks generally can be managed in the same way as other electronic databases.

Making sure that library users are aware of the full range of library resources is always a concern and even more so when it comes to non-print materials such as eBooks. How then does one make eBooks as accessible as possible to library users? Key concerns include such things as how to integrate eBooks into the library catalogue; for example, how should libraries handle electronic resources that have significant numbers of titles on them? Should they add all the titles into the catalogue or just selected ones? Larger law libraries, such as university law libraries, generally have the technical resources to integrate the list of journal and electronic titles directly into their catalogue. Alternatively, should libraries merely note the existence of the database in their catalogue?

Even if eBooks are included in the catalogue, libraries may still run into the problem that users will not use this material. Based on personal experience, a certain number of people find reading books on a computer screen to be awkward so even if a user does find the eBook in the library catalogue, he or she may not wish to use it. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those people who use Google for all their research and if a resource does not show up in Google, it might as well not exist. A colleague of mine recently commented that she dealt with law students who had never used the university’s library catalogue; they just Googled for materials.

There are still only a small number of Canadian legal eBooks designed for mobile devices, such as Canada Law Book’s British Columbia Annual Practice, and Carswell’s Practitioners Income Tax Act; the number of U.S. law books available for eReaders is much greater. It is far easier to read eBooks on a tablet than it is on the small screen of a Blackberry or iPhone so the ever increasing popularity of tablets means that the potential market for legal eBooks is growing.

Similarly, when it comes to legal apps, American publishers are ahead of Canadian publishers. Among the legal information apps currently available are Black’s Law Dictionary, WestlawNext and a number of U.S. federal and state codes. There are a minimal number of Canadian legal apps so far; Wilson and LaFleur have produced an app for the iPad that allows users to access a small number of French language titles.

It is likely that there are going to be increasing numbers of eBooks available over the next few years, so the question then becomes: how do libraries best manage eBooks for mobile devices?

Although public libraries have been in the forefront of eBook lending, their model does not really lend itself to law libraries. British Columbia’s public libraries provide access to a wide range of eBooks through Library To Go wherein titles are requested and checked out in a manner akin to the traditional process and then downloaded to the user’s computer or mobile device. Once the loan period is up, the book is automatically deleted, so the next person can “borrow” it. Libraries can only lend a preset number of copies of a book, so for a popular book users have to wait for it in the same way they would for a physical copy. There are some practical issues with this model when it comes to private law libraries. Unlike public libraries, the materials in a private law library collection are intended to be readily accessible all the time. With a traditional print book in a law firm library, a user either reads it in the library or signs it out to use in his or her office. If someone else needs that book, they can see who has the book and then borrow it from the original borrower.

A different way of handling eBooks is to place multiple eBooks and apps on a portable device (such as a Kindle, Kobo or iPad) which can then be loaned out. As with the public library model, this too reduces access to books since a borrower can’t then pass those books he or she isn’t using on to another user. This may become less of an issue as Amazon has introduced a system whereby Kindle books in the United States can be lent to other people. However, not all Kindle books are eligible for loans as it depends entirely on how the publisher has set up the eBook licence. It seems apparent that how legal publishers licence eBooks is going to be a major issue for libraries.

Given these issues a logical market for eBooks is as a replacement for the “desk copy”. From a practical point of view, it is much easier to manage an eBook when it is only going to be used by a single person. One advantage of an eBook over print is the ability to easily search the text, and some eBook readers allow annotation. An added bonus is that an eBook reader tends to weigh less than its paper equivalent; a single copy of the Income Tax Act is significantly heavier than any of the portable eBook readers on the market. (Furthermore, eBook consolidations of legislation are much less likely to be left behind in conference rooms than print versions.) The general purpose Apple iPad and the forthcoming Blackberry PlayBook (which will come with Kobo’s e-reader software installed) mean that the number of lawyers with access to some variety of eBook reader is likely to increase.

Judging from the vendor forum at the 2010 Canadian Association Law Libraries conference, legal publishers are very interested in the eBook concept. From the librarian’s perspective, there are a number of reasons for integrating eBooks into the library: reduced library space, ease of supporting the needs of lawyers who work remotely, and making it simpler for lawyers who would like to go paperless. Going forward from here, it is important that publishers work with libraries to develop both a business model and a practical framework for eBooks that meets the needs of all parties.


  1. Great post. Thanks for capturing the issues. E-books definitely complicate things from a library’s perspective and I agree their increasing popularity and usage will continue to be a challenge.

  2. Thanks for mentioning my book, Susan!

    It will be interesting to see how the legal e-books are developed, because I’m not sure the legal publishers have a good handle about where the format fits between their databases and their print materials. I think it’s fair to say that legal information consumers are like other researchers, shifting to the power browse rather than reading end-to-end. E-books will really need to be more app-like, and less book-like, to accommodate this type of non-linear usage. But e-books are partly billed as an alternative to the print book, so there is an expectation (particularly if you’ve used a Kindle or Kobo) that the information will appear more like a book than to a database.

    I like using the Overdrive partnership with the public library to download EPUB books and have them expire after a predetermined time. But if lawyers only need focused access to part of an e-book, libraries will need to have a way to either quickly rotate content on and off lawyer-owned devices, to license content by subparts (chapters, whatever), or load (and license) huge amounts to enable broad research as well as deep. Talk about “just in time” collecting!

  3. Wonderful post! Lots of issues for discussion here. I’d like to add another question: If you have a choice of formats, how will you decide when to purchase the e-book over the paper copy, or vice versa?

  4. David Collier-Brown

    David Whelan notes that if lawyers only need focused access to part of an e-book, libraries will need to have a way to either quickly rotate content on and off lawyer-owned devices, to license content by subparts (chapters, whatever), or load (and license) huge amounts to enable broad research as well as deep.

    O’Reilly, with their “Safari” subscription service deals with this in part: one can search the whole collection, read initial pages, and then chose to use one of your “tokens” to subscribe to the publications or chapter for a month.

    A longish description is at

    The systems is aimed at serving individuals, not groups or their libraries, but does meet the needs of many readers of technical and scholarly books. As a librarian, I’d like to be able to subscribe a whole community of readers to the service, and be able to publish a monthly “What we’ve been reading on-line” newsletter based on reports from the service.

    Full disclosure: I’m the author of an O’Reilly computer book

  5. Thank you for this post, Susannah. I found it very useful and informative!