Introducing Slaw’s Theme Week on Grey Literature

Despite Simon’s description of me‘Redoubtable’ has a fairly mixed range, from prominent and esteemed, through formidable, to “appalling, dire, dreadful”, I can’t claim to be much of an expert in GL, so my approach to being the “lead” of this Theme Week will be less as an august guide (though I suppose I am an August guide), and more as a tourist, perhaps even a “redoubtable” one. In any case, I’ll make my comments and hopefully the rest of you can fill in the important bits I miss.

Because GL in the legal world is considerably less known and collected than it is in medicine and the sciences, I’ve also taken the suggestion, with permission from Simon, to invite some guests to add their comments on specific aspects of GL in the legal world. This is to emphasize that improved access to GL in the legal world will require collaboration. I’ve put together a 5-day itinerary:

  1. Definition of GL and some questions regarding legal GL; sources on and of GL.
  2. Collecting GL in libraries, with Professor Kathryn Arbuckle, Law Librarian at the John A. Weir Memorial Law Library.
  3. Finding GL, with Susan Salo, Head of CISTI’s London NIC (NRC Information Centre)
  4. GL: access and authentication, with Jim Suderman, manager of records management services for the City of Toronto member of the InterPARES research project, and Hannelore Dekeyser, legal researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Law & ICT (K.U.Leuven, Belgium), and also of InterPARES.
  5. GL, publishing, authorship and authority, with Professor John Willinsky of Deptartment of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, and the Public Knowledge Project.

Definition of GL:

GL includes many format types: reports, pre-prints, conference proceedings, discussion papers, project evaluations, theses and many others. Here is the current definition as articulated in Luxembourg, 1997 and expanded in New York, 2004:

Information produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in electronic and print formats not controlled by commercial publishing, i.e. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body. As reported in D.J. Farace, Introduction, 22 Publishing Research Quarterly 3.

Considering this from the standpoint of legal collections raises several questions for me. Does ‘commercial publishing’ include government publishing bodies? If so, it seems we should exclude all government documents from consideration. This UBC guide lists gov. docs. as a form of GL, and I think that is a common position. If we include gov. docs. in GL, why wouldn’t we include legislation?

How about case law? In the past it has been offered almost exclusively by commercial publishers, but now it is brought to the public by the same body that is proposing to make factums accessible; can we keep one and exclude the other?

What if a law faculty set up a peer-reviewed electronic journal and covered the cost of production with a moderate subscription rate? What if they offered it for free and built the cost of running it into their grant proposals? Is it a ‘commercial publisher’? You may object that peer-reviewed stuff is not GL, and you may be right, but there is nothing in the definition about the selection or editing processes.

What about the research products of a not-for-profit, such as the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, or the UK’s Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, or ALRI? These might seem to be securely GL, but look at Improving Dispute Resolution for California’s Injured Workers from the non-profit Rand Institute for Civil Justice. It’s a 739 page research report, and it includes the following CIP info:

Rand report CIP

I believe these are all open questions, and possibly the answers will change as publishing itself changes. But even if a definition of GL is a moving target, there are some typical qualities of GL that are commonly noted: it is not produced commercially; perhaps not professionally edited; not consistently indexed, not systematically circulated, and then in small numbers; printed unprofessionally; addressed to a small, specialized audience; not available through the traditional channels of publishers and bookstores… again, most of them negative qualities. Perhaps other hallmarks can be added.

However, I want to introduce one idea here that I would really like to see some comments on, as I don’t think I’ve seen it explored elsewhere. In defining GL, should we also be considering the relationship between the issuing body and the document? I think, for instance, that this report from Reed-Elsevier is clearly GL, even though it has been produced by a ‘commercial publisher.’ It seems to me that a pervasive quality of GL is that it is an outcome of the work and purpose of the issuing body. Catalogues, press releases, financial reports, policies, and other documents are integral to the life of a publisher in a way that an individual title is not. Such documents are also evidence of the activity of a corporation. Can GL be evidence in a way that commercially published materials cannot?

Resources on GL:

Here at the start it is also a good idea to make a short list of some of the main resources about GL. The only English language monograph on the topic that I have been able to find is:

C.P. Auger Information Sources in Grey Literature 4th ed., (London ; New Providence, N.J. : Bowker-Saur, 1998). 1857391942.

The two journals with a regular GL focus are:

The Grey Journal: An international journal on grey literature
ISSN: 1574-1796


Publishing Research Quarterly, which regularly devotes its spring issue to the previous year’s GL conference proceedings.
ISSN: 1053-8801.


the 8th annual international GL conference is in New Orleans.

These resources are tied together at the GreyNet website.

Additionally, there is a faily large number of helpful webpages put together by librarians and others offering quick guides or introductions to GL The UBC page struck me as a good one.


Rather than trying to select a short list of leading GL sources, both legal and non-legal, most of which we will encounter in the coming days, I thought it would be fun to survey the last two weeks of Slaw to see how many posts there were linking to GL. Here is the result:

Legal GL:

Non-legal GL:

That’s it for now. I hope this initial message will inspire some discussion…


  1. Hi Michael:

    Great introduction. I also am no expert on grey literature, but I think due to the difficulty in categorizing (and finding) it (especially for law-related GL), and due to its relative importance, I wonder if this as a small example that illustrates the important role that MLS/MISt/MIS-trained librarians can play (compared to a non-trained information seeker).

    Perhaps a backwards way of also defining GL is how the material is “indexed” (or more likely, not indexed). If lack of organized indexing is a criteria that defines GL, would that exclude legislation and other primary sources of law (I don’t consider legislation GL). I am looking forward to any discussion on “finding” GL.

    Different point: do we consider law-firm brochures, newsletters and “alerts” GL? (I tend to).

    Another category of important law-related information that tends to fall between the cracks for some researchers is law reform publications. As most readers of SLAW know, the BC Law Institute has a nice searchable database of law reform reports at I am not sure law reform reports fall cleanly into GL, but they tend not to fall cleanly into other areas.

    On a more cheeky note: is not the entire Web grey literature?

  2. Hi Ted,

    To be honest, I’m not sure it is useful to classify legislation as GL, but it is an interesting question to ask…

    In thinking about accessing GL, it has occurred to me that there may be some refuge here for librarians from the constant barrage of library alternatives. In the days when books were harder to find out about, libraries collected them. Now, with Amazon, Oprah’s book club, etc. etc., should libraries also be making the efforts to find and make available the stuff that’s harder to find?

    Is the web GL? A lot of it might be better considered ephemera, but even “fan literature” has been considered a branch of GL:

    …I don’t know of any legal fan lit., but there are lots of topical legal blogs out there.

  3. Your post is most helpful, Michael. I have been a bit fuzzy as to what grey lit is exactly. I’m wondering whether a royal commission report would be considered grey literature? While I tend to think of it in that category, is not the purpose of a commission to report? Hmmm….

  4. I think a RC report is GL. The interesting thing about such committee bodies and their reports is their relationship to the larger institution. In this case, that relationship will be governed by parliamentary proceedure. From what I know of Roberts’ Rules, the report of a committee is a communicaion to the assembly, which is a type of ‘conference’. The proceedings of the conference (the Hansards), including the RC report, should be available to all members of the assembly (citizens) through their delegates (MPs).

  5. Ah, so its main purpose is not publication for the public. Because the reports just happen to be available to the public makes it GL. Have I got my thinking straight?

  6. I think GL is often produced for a specific audience, in a way that publications are not, but it is not something that can be pinned down too well. For instance, a company’s annual report may be formally addressed to shareholders, and may be created in part to meet legal requirments. On the other hand, companies use their annual reports as marketing documents, and make them avaiilable to the media, so clearly there can be multiple drivers. I don’t beleieve anyone has yet been required by law to write a tome on court procedure, for instance… though it might be a sentencing innovation with strong deterrent effect :-)