Legal Deposit, Publisher Prices, and the Future of Print

What to do with print now that so much is online, and discussions of what’s the point of print are taking place well beyond the posts on Slaw. Working in a Legal Deposit library means I have had to take a step back, look at the issues, and accept a much more conservative approach than I might have done otherwise.

Before I start on legal deposit, I know two good reasons why print is important, and they are both to do with personal experience. Firstly, when there is an electricity blackout you cannot access the internet. Mostly this is not a problem, true, but a sub-station outside the library went kaput one weekday, term-time afternoon, and was out for 6 hours. We became redundant real estate for some readers as they hightailed back to their college rooms for power… or did we? No, many folk just got off their backsides and made their way to the shelves, discovering the books they usually ignore.

Secondly, until everything we need is available free of charge on the internet how can we abandon all the print? The online legal publishers continue to increase prices above inflation most years, as if they’d never heard of the Global Financial Crisis. While there are others, Lloyds Law Reports are a classic example. They used to be on the UK version of both Lexis and Westlaw, and whilst not a core reporter series, about 2 out of every five cases in each volume is not reported elsewhere. So for commercial lawyers they are still an important source. Given the significant advantage that this exclusivity provides, it would not be surprising if pricing decisions took advantage of that – lawyers had simply nowhere else to go. That’s fine, we can’t quibble with that in a capitalist world, aiming to take advantage of market factors seems to be what it’s all about in the end. But they actually took it a step further, by imposing unrealistically high prices on the online subscription version of their products, and, to my way of thinking, took their position to the limit. Law firms in particular are charged quite exorbitant rates for access. Even in an academic setting, where we are often given favorable rates, we are required to pay an amount for the Lloyds database equivalent to nearly half that paid for all of the Westlaw databases. To my way of thinking, something is wrong here!!

So back to legal deposit. It seems like a ‘good thing’ to be a legal deposit library. You are entitled to receive a copy of everything published in your country to add to your collection. At the Bodleian Law Library we select all the law material that comes through to the Bodleian Libraries twice a week. The system evolved from the request by Sir Thomas Bodley (our great and glorious founder) in 1610 to the Stationer’s Company that Bodley’s Library should be provided a free copy of all books registered with the Company. (There is detailed information about it on the Bodleian Libraries’ website.)

The system would be great if we knew all publishers always deposited materials as legally required. But the sad truth is they do not. And the problem has compounded with the gradual ingestion by the publishing behemoths of many smaller, quality or specialized legal publishers.

This is a problem for any library which is meant to hold all the wealth of a country’s published material in its collection. For a law library the problem is made worse by the very serial nature of much legal publishing. Format is our enemy – during the course of a year we receive loose part law reports, single copies of acts, single issues of journals, and single releases of loose leaf services. IF we receive everything we still have all the staff time and effort to process all this material, much of which is peripheral to the teaching that takes place in our law school.

But the problem is that we do not receive everything that we should, and so for us, what should be a wonderfully comprehensive and representative collection does have gaps. The gaps come from missing parts, but also from the ebb and flow of ownership of titles. Some titles that were published in the UK have moved to new locations in Europe, even though the title is the same. So the title is now no longer ‘free’; if we want to keep it, we have to find the funds to subscribe to it. The administration involved in keeping on top of these changes can be daunting; the Agency manages some of it, making claims if it knows something is out of sequence, but with our complex materials, they often have no idea that a part or an act is missing until we let them know. And if it is more than 3 months since publication, chances are the publisher no longer has spare copies.

There is a lot more to legal deposit that I could write about, but I wanted to explain that legal deposit ties in with the issue of whether to keep paper or not. If I were back working in a law firm library I would expect the local law school to have paper copies of what I need. Law schools who discard their paper have a belief and expectation that a library like the Bodleian will always have the paper copies on hand to help fill their needs when they dispose of paper. We could be entering a dangerous phase where unintentional gaps appear, and the impact of these are not felt for the next decade or two. I wonder whether my concerns are ill founded, and no-one really cares, or if there will be future law librarians who will look back and wish we’d done things differently in the rush to abandon the paper?


  1. Excellent. Brings balance to an often off balance discussion.

  2. Wonderful reflection on an intriguing problem. At first blush, we in other academic libraries envy you your legal deposit status. Only one library in Canada enjoys that privilege (but it’s in Ottawa, a fact that Victoria Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha has a lot to answer for). But, as you remind us, there’s much more to running a library than simply acquiring books; most of our costs pertain to organizing, processing and storing them. And increasingly, the costs relate to digital product. Regardless, the costs are becoming overwhelming and insupportable, leading to a temptation to cancel print that is increasingly compelling, easily justified, and popular with management. Will the day come when we all (law firms and law schools) will have to turn to our national library as the last best option for accessing print? And will we have to mind the gaps? Or, when the lights go out, do we all just go home?

  3. and if everyone (or a significant number) abandons print, will the publishers discontinue it too? So no one will have ‘the’ print version, and the prohibitive prices or the instability of access to or storage of the digital versions may produce permanent gaps.

    Back to Ian Wilson’s End of History speech from the 1990s… (which I cannot readily find online: thesis: problems with saving digital data will make the ‘information age’ poorly documented.)