Of Wikibooks and the Impossible Trinity of Information

Poo-pooing Wikipedia’s citeworthiness has a rich and honoured tradition, and not just among academics. The authoritative quality of crowd-sourced wisdom is a well-flogged heel for those in legal circles too, often trotted out in judgments like some Karl Von Hess to be beaten up by proper prudent legal authority. Wikipedia was first knocked about in Canadian jurisprudence in Bajraktaraj v. Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration), 2005 FC 261, a decision of the Federal Court which set the tone for dealing with the pariah:

… the quality of the sources relied upon by the applicant, including an article by a Serbian priest, hardly an objective observer, and a downloaded extract from an on-line encyclopaedia, “Wikipedia,” that provided no references for its content, did not impress.

Wikipedia is oft the butt of judicial quips. It is described as “highly questionable“, or more cuttingly “the font of all information for 20 and 30 year olds” and others who are “simplistically enabled” (not in a good way). Those who cite it be warned, citing Wikipedia may itself be a signal of mental illness. That is what we can take away from at least one case where a patient citing Wikipedia for his self-diagnosis was found “incapable of considering information” and deemed unfit to decide his own treatment for mental illness.

And even plain-speaking judges cannot help but use air quotes when calling it an “encyclopedia” and bluntly concluding:

… the content of such entries cannot be considered very reliable and should not be given much weight.

Right. Enough already. It’s easy to see where the skepticism stems from. The roiling corpus of user-generated knowledge is nothing if not fluid. As one study on Canadian legal journals that included citations to Wikipedia discovered, 35% of citations to Wikipedia had pertinent content that was significantly altered after the date of citation. And as for being neutral? Stephen Colbert once said “Truthiness is what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are. What feels like the right answer as opposed to what reality will support.” There is no reason to doubt most of Wikipedia’s contents, but the fact that truth can so easily become some anonymous user’s take on what is best from a truthiness perspectives, dissuades those with serious agendas, especially those beholden to the principles of best evidence.

Nonetheless, while few strenuously defend Wikipedia’s suitability as a rigorous authority, no one can credibly argue that the objective to provide authoritative, rigorously accurate legal knowledge at no cost to readers is a bad one. We are nailing Canadian primary sources with CanLII. Is it impossible for us to hope a “specialist wiki” has a chance?

I think lawyers would be surprised by what other fields have accomplished. Philosophers have had major success establishing highly credible wiki-style resources for highly complex topics. Check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a truly respected resource that appears to have attained the Impossible Trinity of Information, that is:

  1. authoritative
  2. comprehensive
  3. up-to-date

Now think about how we in the law might achieve the same thing…

Clicklaw Wikibooks

When not writing for Slaw and losing in debate with Simon Chester, I oversee Clicklaw Wikibooks, a wiki-based publishing platform for public legal information in British Columbia. Don’t put me in a straight jacket quite yet.

It’s one of Courthouse Libraries BC’s special projects, used by a growing number of BC legal organizations—including the Canadian Bar Association BC Branch and several others—to deliver public legal education and information (or “PLEI”) in a cost effective way that ordinary citizens can easily find and use.

Clicklaw Wikibooks takes the information locked away in booklets, guides and other resources for self-represented people, and releases it in several different ways to promote accessibility, from EPUBs, to smart SEO-friendly webpages, to books in print, on demand, in libraries, etc.

The Clicklaw Wikibooks platform is a customized install of MediaWiki. As the name implies, its emphasis is on “books” (rather than stand alone “articles” per se). It currently hosts 20 or so titles and it looks and works a lot like Wikipedia, but with some key differences:

  1. Only approved editors can make edits — not the anonymous user.
  2. Clicklaw Wikibook titles are optimized for export in various formats—with one-click to give you a whole wikibook in digital, printable, and even printed and bound formats.

Because one of CLBC’s priority is to support public libraries, we’ve ensured that Clicklaw Wikibooks can produce bound books with spines—just the way public libraries want them. Its other benefits as a platform are its convenience, cost effectiveness and flexibility as a publishing tool.

What began as an experiment in 2012 has more or less doubled in size each year. The site now serves up over 42,000 sessions monthly. The most popular title is JP Boyd on Family Law, a vast resource founded on John-Paul Boyd’s early website for self-represented family litigants, and now maintained by a team of editors, including senior lawyers and judges. This compendium of family law prints out to over 700 pages and accounts for roughly half of all traffic. With numbers like that, we realized it was possible to learn even more from the experiment and so this year we teamed up with the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family (where JP Boyd is now executive director) to commission a multi-phase evaluation exploring not only what people think about the resource, but how this wikified approach to disseminating legal information actually impacts on outcomes and access to justice.

Phase I Final Report

CRILF surveyed 546 users and conducted follow up surveys with 142. These responses were from users of the family law resource specifically. A couple weeks ago they released the final phase one report, and researchers Lorne Bertrand and Joanne Paetsch promptly published a guest post to the Clicklaw blog revealing some of the highlights. We were glad to learn that:

  • Clicklaw Wikibooks was easy to use, and its content was useful, understandable, and recommendable.
  • The resource is helpful to those in small communities where alternative access is limited.
  • Users are hungry for in-depth information—even a 700 page family law treatise can be too small for voracious minds.

We were also enlightened to see something we did not expect; the resource is popular not only with self-represented litigants, but lawyers too. The plain-language resource is not meant for those with legal training, but it is a welcome nod to the authoritativeness of the content and its editors (which includes senior counsel and members of the Bench).

As the researchers note:

The second phase of our evaluation is currently underway and is examining the long-term usefulness of the wikibook. This study will look at whether the information users found in the wikibook actually helped them to resolve their current legal problem, and whether it provided them with the capacity to identify and deal with new legal issues.

The extremely positive findings of the evaluation support the continued use and further expansion of this innovative model of public legal education delivery. Users of the wikibook considered it to be an authoritative and reliable resource, and the fact that the material can be copied, saved and reused at no cost makes it an extremely affordable and portable educational tool. Other jurisdictions should give serious thought to adopting this model for the delivery of public legal education.

While there are certainly ongoing challenges in maintaining Clicklaw Wikibooks (ensuring ongoing editor engagement, scaling for size while preserving low cost, etc.) it certainly feels like we are close to, if not the full realization of that impossible trinity of information, a serviceable model that other jurisdictions might learn from.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    I entirely agree: the site is a second example, after the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, of an on-line curated resource successfully meeting an “impossible” standard of quality.

    Now re-consider this in light of a publication for the professional community. If it were
    – organized so as to be reader-printable in very small, self-contained units
    – updated regularly,
    – organized technically so that replaced material was still available in a semi-hidden, dated structure, and finally
    – annotatable without the annotations disappearing into the hidden data when outdated,
    then I think we have a”looseleaf” replacement


  2. Hi David,
    Thanks for commenting. Would a looseleaf replacement still need to be in print, do you think?
    By “small, self-contained units” do you mean content that’s chunked up by topic (more granular) or are you also thinking about the user’s ability to print selections from a whole (without needing to print the whole thing)?
    It sounds like the “semi-hidden, dated structure” for replaced material is accomplished through versioning in MediaWiki.

  3. David,

    Would access to the product you’re proposing be by subscription? If so, would this contribute to further costs for those who are self-represented litigants (especially those SRLs who are self-represented not by choice but by necessity because they find legal services to be unaffordable)? Will it be feasible to also have a print version readily available on the shelf for those without access to the online subscription product or in the event that the online product has technical difficulties?