Only Connect!

I am 100% certain that E.M. Forster wasn’t thinking about legal publishing when he wrote that powerful phrase; on the other hand, it seems apposite given where we are in the development of online legal publishing today.

A couple of months ago I wrote about some of my hopes and dreams for the future of legal publishing. Legal infographics, the semantic web, open data—these are exciting times for legal publishers (I’m afraid I don’t agree with Robert McKay on this point).

I loved Susannah Tredwell’s column about skeuomorphism and how the format of the print book informs so much of what we see in online publishing.

I believe we need to address the relationship between print and online publishing before we delve into the fabulous world of infographics or the semantic web. By “we” I mean all legacy legal publishers who have been publishing secondary sources in print.

For the first 15 years of the CLEBC publishing program, we published in print only. Most of our publications came in the form of one or two volume practice manuals setting out the “how to” of a particular transaction in exhaustive detail. We’ve been publishing online since 2003, but not surprisingly, the format of our online publications has mirrored that of our print books. As Susannah notes, there are good reasons that we did so.

But now it’s time to move beyond the limitations of the print format. One of the most compelling reasons for doing so is the rise of the digital native. Law students, and the generation of lawyers now early in their careers, have a completely different relationship to digital information. Not only are they fully comfortable using technology, their preferred device is the smartphone or other mobile device. In an thoughtful comment on the New York Times Innovation report (required reading if you’re interested in the future of journalism or online publishing), Thomas Baekdal reports on how different generations relate to entertainment and information online.

So what does the new online legal publication look like? How do we take all our fabulous legal information and publish it in a mobile-friendly way? How can we make relevant information more findable and more readable on a mobile device?

The best way to do so is to arrange material by topic in smaller pieces (maybe even smaller than book chapters) and make more connections between related topics.

Our challenge is that legal information is intensely inter-connected. Legal problems are often not about just one thing; tasks need to be performed in a certain sequence; if-then scenarios need to be displayed effectively; and so on. In the new online publication, we need to make sure that related information can be found, that it is clear what is connected to what, and where each piece of information stands within an action or transaction.

It’s worth remembering how we express those connections in print: by using page numbers, section numbers, and cross-references. We also use those all-important finding tools: the index and the table of contents. (I agree with everything Susannah Tredwell says about including indexes in online publications.)

Even the sequencing of topics indicates their logical order and the connections between them. But with smaller, stand-alone topics, the sequencing isn’t always clear. And phrases such as “see below” lose their meaning.

When information is published as smaller, stand-alone topics, is it better to repeat information or to cross-reference? This question plagued us even when we published only in print. How much cross-referencing is too much? I faced this issue some years ago when we published a voluminous practice manual that supported the introduction of a new BC statute. Our lead editorial board member had been closely involved in the development of the statute, and his knowledge of its contents was encyclopedic. He understood exactly how each section related to every other section, and he believed we should include this information as cross-references throughout the manual. This made for an unbelievable amount of repetition. Was it too much? It was probably too much for the editor (me) who had to read and check every cross-reference. It certainly wasn’t excessive for our users, though, who were using the book one small piece at a time and wouldn’t have noticed the repetition.

So how will we ensure that our users get information that’s easily consumed on mobile devices, but also ensure that every relevant connection is made? How do we make sure nothing gets missed? Metadata and semantic tagging will support finding tools. And although many links and connections can be inserted programmatically using metadata, I forsee that knowledgeable editorial staff will also be needed.

On top of it all, we’ll continue to need a powerful and effective search engine … but that’s a topic for another day.


  1. Excellent column, as ever, Susan. It’s uplifting to see you draw out those elements which are challenging and not at all dull. In my own article, my intention was to highlight those components where people’s input has been diminished. I suspect that for the most part, we would agree, as I would certainly with everything you write here. Indeed it’s not so long ago that I wrote “An Exciting Time for Legal and Professional Publishing”,

  2. Thanks for those kind words, Robert. It seems that whether this is an exciting or dull time to be in legal publishing depends on who you’re working for and how much scope you have to respond the changing environment. If the constraints of your position mean that you’re constantly disappointed with the quality of your product, then it’s difficult. If you’re in a position to respond to the incredible opportunity around us, then it’s great! Happily we are in the second camp here at CLEBC.

  3. Spot on, Susan (and Susannah). Looking forward to the next “chapter” of CLEBC online publishing.

  4. I do agree with you, Susan. CLEBD sounds like the place to be for those who want to give their best. It’s the sort of place and people I was thinking of when drafting what I hope will be my next Slaw column, provisionally entitled “The Good Guys of Legal and Professional Publishing”. I just think that everyone’s a winner in the model you describe.

  5. Excellent column Susan. I can tell you that when we finally got down to the task of designing our online platform, we simply abandoned the notion of a book. Because we’ve always written in a very interconnected manner, it was easy to do and seems to be driving changes in our editorial practices. For me, publishing a database of answers is what I am striving for now.

    With respect to your comment on TOCs and indexes as metadata, TOCs are helpful (and necessary) to search because they can be weighted in ways that paragraph level content can’t, but in our experience indexes are less helpful because they can often give too much weight to the wrong response. Synonym tables (and the like) are much more effective in that regard.

  6. Jason, will you say more about the issue you’ve mentioned regarding indexes? A properly-prepared (human-prepared) index entry should point to good information, rather than to passing mentions or words used out of context, so should not retrieve irrelevant results. Of course, the value of a particular piece of content to a particular user depends on that user’s situational needs, so how do you assess whether an index entry is “giv[ing] too much weight to the wrong response”?

  7. Joy,

    Sorry I wasn’t clear. What I should have said that given how your search processes are designed, (warning: oversimplification) for example by relying to some degree on term frequency, indexes as metadata have the potential to drive certain search results higher (depending on weighting and other factors), which may or may not be what you want to do. It’s hard to explain, but in experimenting with metadata and search, oftentimes it is a game of whack-a-mole. That’s not to say a good index can’t yield better results, it just doesn’t for us quite yet. In a way, thesauruses act as a bridge between the query and the document and pretend to be document-specific metadata, and while good, they too can yield some wonky results in search.