Building Canada’s Digital Law Library

Over the past year, I have written a series of articles on the theme of (re)building a law library. Obviously, I attach great value to the concept of library as place: my previous column was on that very topic. For me, the expression “virtual library” is somewhat of a misnomer, for a library cannot be virtual if it exists in space and that space has a function. I much prefer the expression “digital library” to describe the non-physical aspect of the library collection, not the library itself, though the two are related and must be integrated in a law library, whether in the academy or in practice, in the 21st Century.

I have argued before that, if we are to remain relevant, librarians must become creators and publishers of digital content for their users, not just collectors/acquirers of third-party content and providing the services and processes (front and back office) to access it. If we do not make this transition from information brokers to digital curators, we run the risk of becoming mere vendor relations managers and irrelevant to the research, learning and information creation activities of our users – be they lawyers, faculty or students. The modern research library must be more than just “bricks and mortar”: it must be “clicks and mortar”. Librarians can be digital curators in two ways. The first is by working within our institutions in developing and maintaining institutional repositories (IRs) of research generated within our communities (an public-sector equivalent of “knowledge management” in law firms). The second is by creating digital collections of historical print resources (law reports, statutes, journals and monographs that are no longer in copyright) that achieve the dual objectives of both preserving our collections for future use and facilitating access to them by others. It is this latter aspect of digital curation that I would like to consider, and in the context of Canadian legal information.

In her recent column “Building Digital Law Libraries”, Lyonette Louis-Jacques describes a number of important initiatives from around the world to digitize legal information. She mentions projects from England, France, Germany, Korea, Portugal, Spain, the United States – everywhere, it seems, except Canada. In an earlier column in this series (Part 2: Everything Old Is New Again), I provided a census of law-related digitization projects in Canada and came to the same realization; namely, that we in Canada are doing too little either to preserve our print legal heritage or to develop a significant digital resource for the future. From either side of the preservation/access equation, we’re failing. The point was driven home this past week when it was reported in The Toronto Star that the Internet Archive Canada was laying off 75% of its staff because of a massive drop in its work (which even so came primarily from one institution: the University of Toronto Libraries). 

So, what would it take to change this? What would it take to start building the Canadian digital law library? What would the initiative look like?

Most of the digitization initiatives described by Lyonette in her article have been organized and are being funded by academic, research or national libraries, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the emphasis has been on digitizing “books”; consequently, if any inherently legal materials are included in the collections, it’s by chance, and they are secondary sources, not primary sources of law. In a digital law library, especially one intended for use in practice, we’d probably prefer a different bias.

Another feature common to most of these digital projects, and not just those undertaken by commercial interests, is that they are subscription services aimed primarily at an academic audience, not readily accessible by legal professionals – and certainly not freely accessible by the public. This is unfortunate. Lawyers in practice already pay too much for access to legal information. Canada has traditionally been a leader in the free-access-to-law movement – witness CanLII and its leading role in developing freely-available digital collections of current legal information. I like to think the Canadian digital law library should be free to all and contain a full array of historical (pre-1980) legal information from both primary and secondary sources.

(An aside: A few weeks ago, the Council of Canadian Academic Law Library Directors published its Calgary Statement on Free Access to Legal Information. Though there’s a great write-up about it in the American Law Librarian Blog, notice of it by the profession has been minimal, most disappointingly here in Canada. Maybe Canadians aren’t the great supporters of the free access movement one would like to believe them to be?)

Digitization is easy. You can do it now on most photocopiers. Likewise, it’s easy to OCR (Optically Character-Scan) the documents as part of the digitization process, converting the digital image to digital text. We’ve just bought a flat-bed scanner for our library that scans and OCRs with amazing accuracy for just a few hundred dollars. But really, there are expert professionals at the Internet Archive Canada just waiting to take on our scanning projects on contract – and they could use the work. They’re fast, efficient, gentle on the books, remarkably accurate, and amazing value. As a standard part of the service, they will scan to multiple formats. Most important, once your documents are in the Internet Archive, they’re being preserved in an official Trusted Digital Archive (TDR), with all the benefits and assurances that imparts. An example of a manuscript recently scanned by the Archive for our library can be viewed here.

More important, perhaps, than digitizing the documents is getting them into a database, which requires several components. The first component is the metadata. For legal information, and unlike other digitization initiatives, the library should provide access to the information at the document (e.g., individual judgment or statute) and not the volume level, so a relatively granular level of metadata mapping is required. But many such models already exist (what are the metadata elements used by CanLII?) and can readily be copied. Unfortunately, inputting the metadata can be only partly automated: much human intervention and effort will be required. Finally, the library will need a search-and-retrieval interface and related hardware on which to store the documents and run the software. It might be possible to find a host for the digital collection (again, CanLII comes to mind), but there are other possibilities, including some of our existing digital repositories. (York University’s institutional repository, called YorkSpace, has been built using DSpace, the Open Archive Initiative (OAI)-compliant open-source software developed by MIT for archiving eprints and other kinds of digital content.)

I’ve purposely oversimplified the digitization process, but it really is not difficult and it’s been done well many times before by many institutions. There are books and other resources available as guides and many people to turn to for help. So, where and how do we begin if we want to start a Canadian digital law library? Maybe we should “just do it”. Lyonette affirms the value of “bottom-up” digitization initiatives, quotes Bob Berring’s remark that “chaotic development” can work to advantage, and concludes,

The online law library collections we’re building and partnering to build may be scattered initiatives, but we are progressing . . . towards a shared digital future of improved access to legal information.

At the Osgoode library, we’ve just started a project, in association with the Law Commission of Ontario, to digitize all the reports and studies published by the Ontario Law Reform Commission (1965-1997). And we have other, bigger plans. It’s not yet the Digital Law Library of Canada, but it’s a start. In the long term, though, this “go it alone” approach may fail, a victim of isolationism, idiosyncratic processes and possibly unsustainable infrastructure. If we are to succeed, we must develop peer networks and collaborative, multi-institutional partnerships to foster longer-term, sustainable projects that support common goals of digital curation. Only in partnership with others – ideally not just among research institutions, but also among academic, private and courthouse libraries – can we develop the shared and sustainable expertise, methodologies, infrastructure and funding required to build and maintain a digital law library in Canada. We ignore the challenge at some risk, especially of leaving the field to commercial publishing interests and the consequences of that for our libraries and for legal professionals and researchers.

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