Two very good columns were posted here recently on the topic of looseleaf legal publications—one by Susannah Tredwell; the other by Ruth Bird. Ruth in particular painted a very negative picture of the looseleaf—basically the care and feeding is too onerous—and predicted its demise within the next 10 years.
Susannah referred to an article in BoingBoing; the comments on the article are most entertaining—mostly cries of woe from people who had been forced as part of their job duties to file looseleafs. From the tone of some of the comments you would think that looseleaf filing is a sophisticated form of torture. I’m certain that the filers are not usually the ultimate users; this is probably one of the reasons that the format has persisted for so long.
In my early years in legal publishing (some 20 years ago), we never questioned our assumption that looseleaf was best for our purposes and our customers. We would very occasionally have a discussion about the format of our publications. Should we publish a softbound volume (so easy for the lawyer to slip into her briefcase on the way to court)? Or should we go with the traditional looseleaf? We saw the looseleaf as the only easy and cost-effective way to keep our publications up to date. Our authors and editorial boards supported this view.
In other words, for as long as I can remember, we’ve taken for granted that publishing in looseleaf is the best format for material that changes frequently. As a publisher we have sought to reduce the pain associated with this format by pledging only to update when necessary (it is very rare for us to update more than once per year). We’ve also always provided replacements for missing pages on request.
But I recently reflected on the production work necessary to create replacement pages. Our staff spends a great deal of time on fitting content to existing pages, ensuring that page beginnings and endings are accurate, inserting additional pages (known to us as point pages; numbered .1, .2, etc.) as necessary, creating filing instructions and contents checklists, and so on. Training staff to do this properly also takes considerable effort. I’m quite certain that if we replaced entire chapters, rather than just the changed pages, we’d save staff time, though our printing costs would be higher. We’re doing a little work now to figure out what the correct balance should be. And of course, as part of our review, we’ll consider the opinions of our customers.
This type of review is important as long as we continue to publish in print. But it is apparent that publishing online is the way of the future. I realize that this is a statement of the obvious for librarians and legal publishers everywhere; however, I frequently encounter lawyers who are adamant that they prefer print.
A recent chat with my sister (who is librarian at a downtown Vancouver law firm) gave me a clear picture of how the change will come. She tells me that a lawyer will rush into her office anxious to find the hard copy of a CLEBC practice manual. But the book is not on the shelf and hasn’t been signed out of the library … where could it be? Time is of the essence! She tells me that she directs her anxious lawyer to our online version—the question is quickly answered and equanimity is restored.
As the legal profession comes to fully understand the convenience (not to mention the rich research experience) of online publications, their attachment to print will diminish. And with the enhanced reading experience of iPads, Kindles, and the like, some of the objections to the online reading experience should also die away. Ruth Bird may well be correct—we’ll see the demise of looseleaf before the end of my career.