The Death of the Looseleaf??

The looseleaf service is one of the legal publishing world’s more interesting phenomena of the last third of the 20th century. Conceived in its most familiar form in the 1960’s as Keesing’s Contemporary Archive by the Commercial Clearing House, they were seen as a clever alternative to publishing new editions of books. It was acknowledged that the pace of change in passing new legislation was increasing, and it was difficult to make a bound book of legislation on a topic of law current, because of the delay between writing and publication. The idea of collecting a book as a series of loose pages, gathered together in a ring binder, and then distributing supplementary updates on a regular basis where pages were replaced with new ones containing recent updates to the law was, indeed, a revolutionary concept.

What advantages were there to these services? Unlike a book, which could only be sold once, publishers realised that they could charge for the original work, and then sell the service of updated parts as an ongoing subscription, generating a steady and reliable income stream. The cost of production would be less, as only packs of pages were produced, no hard backs, no need for new artwork, and little work for the publisher post production and mailout.

The looseleaf gained popularity with the profession because it was usually packaged to contain law and commentary – and later on cases, based on an area of practice, such as family law or tax law, etc. Suddenly the lawyers did not have to rely on series of law reports – a 2 or 3 volume ring binder set could provide the latest legislative changes, new caselaw, and commentary as well. As long as the lawyer had someone to file the updates – usually secretary or librarian, rarely the lawyer! – the services were an invaluable and usually reliable research tool. 

As with all money spinning ventures of legal publishers, these early successes spawned imitators, rival publications covering the same topics by competitor publishers, and a nightmare for librarians. In the 1990’s at law firms it was often deemed essential by partners that they have at least one or two of the leading looseleaf services in their office . Some would favour one publisher, others another, and all would expect the services to be updated on the day of receipt of the updated part. Librarians despaired. The time it takes to update a service varies on the experience of the updater and the complexity of the update and the number of volumes of the service. 

The frequency of updates was an issue – some arrived 4 times a year, others monthly, the nightmarish tax and company law as frequently as fortnightly!!! And a further complication arose when the postal service failed to deliver a part; subsequent updates would lie around waiting to be filed. Claiming missing parts was as frustrating and wasteful as the filing itself. In the good old days the publishers kept up their own master sets of services and offered advice and guidance on tricky updates. This service has gradually disappeared in many publishing houses.

The other nightmare scenario was the missing page – pages – sections, etc. Users would remove pages to copy them, or to hold on to them, and there was no way in a library that this could be prevented. So another form of chasing had to be done when missing bits were discovered by irate users. More frustration and time wasting for the librarian, and chasing up lost pages from many months/years ago relied on the publishers holding these in stock.

Other problems had to do with the expansion of volumes, taking up more and more shelf space.

Now this litany of woes, and historical review, serves as a reminder to us all of the loathsome nature of this form of publishing. The early attempts by publishers to transfer the contents to electronic format were laughably frustrating for users. The functionality of the looseleaf could not be replicated on CD Rom, although valiant efforts were made by publishers such as CCH. The static, unwieldy pages did not translate to flat files without hyperlinking and cross referencing of some sort. The lawyers rarely took a shine to this option, and the publishers continued to produce more specialised and costly services. 

Librarians were in revolt over the services from the early days, resenting the time consuming nature of the format; there would be few librarians who would champion the looseleaf and who would not have sad tales to relate of hidden piles of unfiled updates, of lawyers relying on out of date services to provide advice, and of chunks or sections of a service disappearing.

Publishers are now not holding masses of back stock of parts, storage is money and they are all more keen on the bottom line than they are on providing this sort of service to customers. PDFs are made available online for some updates – and again the librarian or the filer has to then cut these down to the right size, punch holes in the right spot (this varies from publisher to publisher – 2, 3 and even 4 ring binders, or clip-in binders, are all on offer) and yet be grateful that some sort of update/replacement service is provided in this format.

 The reason for this lengthy reminiscence is twofold. We recently got so fed up with being unable to obtain missing parts from publishers who no longer retain the stock on a just- in-case basis, that we employed a couple of postgrads for 5 or 6 weeks over summer to just get on with the filing backlog. We have over 300 multi-volume looseleaf services in the Bodleian Law Library, a truly horrendous number when you think of the rate of updates… So that project gave us a chance to gather our forces and bring things up to date, and to give up waiting for helpful cooperation from the publishers.

But perhaps the happiest development for me was the discussion I had with one leading publisher the other day as we looked at the totally new approach being taken to looseleafs online. At long last the publishers have stopped trying to convert static paper to static electronic flat content. They now see the information as an organic, interlinking resource that allows a serendipity of approach, hyperlinking and content are divorced from the format. And we now have to wonder how long the publishers will continue to produce the paper updates 

Will we lament the decline and fall of the looseleaf? I doubt it. Ask anyone who has filed updates – they won’t weep any tears. Nor would those who use the services and suffer the frustration of coming across missing pages – or worse than that, services that are meant to be up to date being months or years behind.. And those who have to check in the parts, claim the missing parts, and manage the subscriptions – they won’t be sorry either. I would be surprised to see this format around in another decade – another format that shot to prominence like a comet in the sky, and is now burning itself out after a 50 year lifespan…


  1. I don’t suppose you can say which publisher now sees “the information as an organic, interlinking resource that allows a serendipity of approach, hyperlinking and content are divorced from the format”?

  2. Hi Gerry – it was not one of the bigger publishers!
    I could share info if you email me, but would rather not on SLAW! cheers