Death to Loose-Leaf?

The future of loose-leaf legal publications is a recurring theme here on Slaw. Ruth Bird, Susannah Tredwell, and I have each written about this topic over the last couple of years. So the tweets from the recent CALL conference proclaiming “Death to Loose-leaf” really caught my attention.

The tweets expressed the need for different formats and the hope for different content (commentary only), different format (bound instead of loose-leaf, or online with links to primary law). One alternative identified was commentary only plus research training for users in updating legislation and case law. Unbundling commentary out of loose-leaf services was also suggested, as was a “text plus author blog” product. Kim Nayyer collected some of the tweets in a Storify page.

As you can imagine, this information caused me some concern. Would we see a flurry of subscription cancellations here at CLEBC? Was there some problematic aspect of this format that hadn’t been addressed yet? I decided to do a little digging.

After speaking with several B.C. law librarians, I learned that a number of loose-leaf publications have become exceptionally difficult to plan for and budget. The following situations were described to me as problematic:

  • unpredictable pricing and frequency of updating (for instance, if a publisher increases the number of updates per year without notice);
  • publishers increasing the number of updates published per year despite feedback that numerous updates are too many;
  • prices seen as too high in relation to the value of the content.

A couple of librarians I spoke with gave me examples of the annual cost of frequently updated publications of thousands of dollars per year; the other example was updates that do not contain enough content; for example, 50 pages replaced, of which only 10 contain any commentary.

Several librarians mentioned that there is no longer a need for primary content in loose-leaf services; all legislation and new case law is freely available online through CanLII and elsewhere.

Courthouse libraries have difficulty with the loose-leaf format because parts get removed; the user who finds that part of the book is removed is frustrated, and arranging for replacement is time-consuming for library staff.

I won’t dwell on the horror of loose-leaf filing; this topic has been well covered elsewhere.

These practices create a challenge for librarians who need to plan and budget carefully. I’ve heard from more than one librarian that their collection budgets have been frozen or even cut; in this environment it is even more important that librarians be able to predict their costs accurately. One consequence of increased frequency and prices of updates is that the librarians are cancelling subscriptions.

Some librarians tried to manage their costs by not subscribing to the regular updates for a loose-leaf service, but by purchasing at regular intervals a set of replacement contents at the original book price. At least one publisher no longer allows this practice. The price for non-subscribers who buy is now the price of the main work plus the previous year’s update releases. You can read the details here. I’m told that this change in the pricing model has caused considerable discomfort in the law librarian community.

All the librarians I spoke with were at pains to tell me that the CLEBC model of annual updates (or in many cases, biennial updates), complete replacement of contents, predictable pricing, and no restriction on repurchase of contents, is an acceptable compromise. Of course, if any of our customers feel differently, I’d like to know.

In 2008, the Vendors’ Liaison Committee of CALL published a “CALL-VLC code of good practices for loose-leaf publications”. This detailed document sets out exactly what the law librarian community expects from loose-leaf publishers. Given the long list of complaints above, though, I’m concerned that the code of good practice is more honoured in the breach.

A recent column by Gary Rodrigues tells of the time that law librarians (through CALL) rose up and demanded changes to the design of the Canadian Abridgment. He described the meeting at CALL where this took place as a riot. Will there need to be another riot before changes are made? Or will the death of loose-leaf come from dwindling subscription numbers?

As noted before, the obvious solution to loose-leaf woes is for publishers, librarians, and users to shift to online publications. Of course, as Gary Rodrigues points out in another insightful column, spending on online legal publications is now subject to the same intense scrutiny as the rest of a law library collection. I can only echo his conclusion: “Listening to law librarians and developing an effective strategy to respond to their concerns is essential if legal publishers are to limit the effects of the cancellation of loose-leaf and online services. The short term pursuit of revenue targets and profit margins is not the answer.”


  1. Thanks, Susan, for your thorough analysis.

    There was a time I preferred the loose-leaf format for its currency and responsiveness to legal developments. As a researcher, I used to find the format saved time, at least initially – a loose-leaf publication, like any secondary source, being only a starting point. In earlier times, as you note, access to current primary legal information wasn’t as easy and inexpensive as it it now.

    I agree that content updates that respond to frequent primary law developments are far less valuable than are occasional updates that contain thoughtful, contextual, and learned analysis of those developments.

    In my opinion, the latter purpose is where the advantage of the loose-leaf format over whole new editions long has lain, as least in some areas of the law. In contrast, frequent updates of the former type reduce opportunities for students to get experience in researching primary law for currency. As the others you mention have noted, many other possibilities for achieving the useful purpose of loose-leafs should be on the horizon.

    I will continue to support subscription to those loose-leafs that offer limited, high-quality updates of commentary.

  2. Enjoyable, well-argued and valuable, as ever.

    For what it’s worth, the last loose-leaf service I launched was in 2003 or thereabouts and, not surprisingly, it didn’t work and had to be closed, its content being dispersed into other media. Moreover, during the past decade or more I can’t think of any existing loose-leaf service that has grown in subscriber numbers. All I have seen is frighteningly poor renewal rates and an evolution towards on-line and, in many cases, annual bound books.

    When I started in legal publishing, we were encouraged to think of loose-leaf for everything, in order to generate customer loyalty/addiction and regular subscription income. However, in that pre-online era, its traditional purpose was to deliver regularly updated and annotated source materials, detailed commentary being a reasonably minor component, that being reserved for the bound tomes. The desire to shift more and more revenue and profit from irregular one-off purchases to subscription, steadily pushed publishers increasingly to the loose-leaf format, a result being that updates were either embarrassingly small, as there was often not enough legislative change and contrived attempts were made to justify the format.

    Somewhat worse, the mix of pay-as-you-go services, where updates are charged separately, can be an excellent way to generate income, particularly towards the end of the financial year, perhaps by splitting one into two, with separate prices. There is certainly benefit to the publisher in retaining a mix of PAYG and subscription services to help hit budget targets.

    I’m certain that if the cash cow element of loose-leaf were over, the format would be almost certainly dead, notwithstanding all the issues that have been highlighted around on-line. On the positive side, but for the legacy of loose-leaf and the investment put into it over the years, the on-line shift may have suffered from both the investment cost and the lack of available and paid-for source content to underpin the on-line services.

  3. I wonder if the publishers would like to get out of the looseleaf business, too. They (and we) may be trapped in a self-perpetuating loop – we’re reluctant to let go of the title because someone MAY say something useful, and there’s no incentive for publishers to cease producing something that’s making them money.

    I think it probably is time for this format to disappear.