How CALL Saved the Canadian Abridgment

The Quebec Riot

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of CALL, it is perhaps worth reminiscing about one of its most infamous and contentious dialogues with a legal publisher. Some of you may know it as the Quebec Riot, an expression no doubt coined by the ever perceptive and distinguished, but sometimes mischievous, Denis Le May.

It came about as any riot usually does, when law librarians felt no one was listening to them.

They were right.

The seventies and eighties saw a veritable explosion in the number of reported cases. New jurisdictional and topical law reports, combined with dramatic increases in the number of cases published in the established law report series, overwhelmed both the legal research community and the Canadian Abridgment.

With the best of intentions

The First and Second Editions of the Canadian Abridgment were primarily collections of caselaw organized by subject matter, modelled on what was known at the time as the British and Empire Digest.

The content of the early editions was selective. Each volume of case digests was independently edited. There was no coherent overall classification system – merely a table of contents with an alpha numeric numbering scheme. There were a handful of companion volumes with a consolidated table of cases, some cases judicially considered, and some statutes judicially considered, an index volume of words and phrases, and a random collection of the titles of articles with the names of the authors.

The need for comprehensiveness was seen as the primary concern that needed to be addressed. The editorial staff acted decisively to do what was thought to be best for the users. A Canadian Abridgment Key was published that consolidated the tables of contents of all of the individual volumes thereby creating the impression of a classification system for the complete set. Titles with missing case digests were revised and reissued. Multi-volume sets replaced individual volumes as both both cases and statutes judicially considered were expanded to include every reference. The Table of Cases was revised to conform to the newly created CLIC Rules. An Index to Canadian Legal Literature was published that met international indexing standards. Finally, a multi volume encyclopedia of words and phrases was created with full definitions, to replace a single volume with key words and citations.

Many of the product enhancements were in effect new publications, that were marketed as components of the Canadian Abridgment. With its very large subscription list, the program gave the publisher a significant financial boost. Internally the program was seen as an overwhelming success.

Unfortunately, insufficient attention was paid to the manner in which the publishing program was delivered to subscribers. No attempt was made to explain in advance the purpose and scale of the undertaking. The subscriber simply received the new volumes with an invoice. To make matters worse, the pattern of issuing revised volumes and permanent supplements in bound and loose-leaf formats that had been used since the time of the original launch of the Canadian Abridgment continued to be used, without any thought given as to whether it could cope with the staggering volume of material that was being published.

What can go wrong in legal publishing

Martha Foote has accurately summarized the resulting problems in her 1994 article entitled The New Canadian Abridgment published in the Legal References Quarterly:

The Canadian Abridgment is a complex research tool that is made up of three main components and four finding tools. In the former category are the case law digests, the case and statute citator and the Index to Canadian Legal Literature, which with the key, case tables, index and words and phrases making up the latter category.

Organizational problems began as the Canadian Abridgment grew and required supplementation, giving rise to a complicated updating process. The publisher chose to utilize a system of permanent supplements, loose-leaf binders and paper parts, none of which cumulated, when a revised second edition was begun the problems worsened since parts of both editions had to be used.

Users duplicated efforts as they moved from new revised volumes to the old permanent supplements and loose-leaf binders which were the next steps in the drawn out research process. References to superseded volumes were left in the case table. As a result updating was confusing and time consuming, changes in format meant a lack of consistency, and researchers were not always sure of the next step.

Denis Le May was more succinct but equally critical when he described it as un systeme incoherent.

Getting it right

I was aware that there were complaints about the Canadian Abridgment, but I had no idea of the scale or their significance. The editorial team was working in an ivory tower with very limited interaction with users.

In 1988, when the editors returned from the CALL Annual Meeting, saying that librarians had complained about how difficult the publication was to understand, it was decided to publish a Guide to Legal Research Using the Canadian Abridgment. The response to the Guide was mixed. Martha Foote called it well written and useful but doomed to failure by its length. Neil Campbell commented in the Book Review of the CALL Newsletter Bulletin (Vol. 14, No. 5, P. 204) as follows:

What the authors have tried to do is tantamount to teaching an octopus how to dance.

Things did not get better. By the spring of 1989, matters had reached the boiling point. Cyndi Murphy (the current President of CALL) called me and asked if I would appear on a Panel at the CALL Annual Meeting in Quebec City to answer questions regarding the Canadian Abridgment
. The questions would be presented to me in advance of the meeting so I would not be taken by surprise. I was forewarned that feelings were running high. I accepted.

At the same time, CALL initiated a campaign to ensure that the publisher fully understood the extent of the problem. We were inundated with a mix of complaints and helpful advice from members of CALL from all across Canada.

We paid attention. The preparation for the meeting was exhaustive. Every comment received was studied with care. Every suggestion for improvement was examined and fully considered. Constructive responses were developed for every question. By the time of the conference, we were ready.

The day of the Riot

On the day of the Riot, it seemed as if the entire conference had opted to attend the Panel. Some attendees even stood on the podium behind the members of the Panel. We were surrounded. Cyndi Murphy and Jennifer Martison presided and posed the series of questions that had been agreed upon in advance. After the Panel, questions were asked from the floor. Positive answers were given to every constructive suggestion, including the creation of a CALL Editorial Advisory Board. Explanations were provided if we were unable to implement a suggestion.

While it was intense, everyone was polite and respectful. There was no blood on the floor. Only one person lost her cool and asked the question whether the conference was going to let me get away with it. A strongly worded resolution that called for action by the publisher was passed afterwards. All in all, it was a very civilized riot, and a great learning experience for everyone involved, that would prove to be just the beginning of a very productive relationship between Carswell and CALL.

It was the first time that CALL had openly challenged a legal publisher. In effect, CALL had taken a very dramatic step that would save the Canadian Abridgment from its possibly short term commercial success and ensure its dominant position as the primary Canadian legal research tool for another generation. It was CALL that took the necessary first step in reforming the process of redeveloping the Canadian Abridgment for the betterment of everyone including the publisher.


As the conference came to an end, the key unresolved issue in the minds of most of the attendees was whether the publisher would act on the commitments that had been made. Time would prove the doubters wrong. In very short order, the Canadian Abridgment Editorial Advisory Board was created and the promised changes, including the two step search, were fully implemented at a pace and in a manner determined in collaboration with the newly created Editorial Advisory Board.


  1. Ah – the glory days of the multi-volumed Abridgment! I remember Carswell brought out a poster designed to help you step through the process of updating. I had a customised one in my office, created for a TALL Season Social skit. The re-drawn arrows led you round in circles, and the title was changed to “The Canadian Derangement”. There were a couple of dinosaurs wandering through it as well. It’s definitely more user friendly now, but I do miss that sense of accomplishment I got when I knew I’d worked my way through and slain the dragon.