The Book Is Not Dead (Reprise)

It gladdens my heart to write this note. News reports – the general, ordinary, public news that has no vested interest in books or libraries or any of the things that are the bread and butter of those of us who are embedded in the biblio world – continue to report on the flattening or decline of the e-book market. The latest item I saw was in Connexion which reported the phenomenon is not limited to the Anglo world – France (with 6% e-book sales) and Germany (5.6%) also report a similar trend, though from a much lower base. In France, physical book sales increased by 2.3% in the last year. In October bookshop chain Waterstones stopped selling Kindles, saying sales had declined; Blackwell’s reports that Nook sales also are in decline. (I have nothing against e-books as an alternative medium, I just don’t want them to become the only medium..)

Along with the story that Amazon will be opening a physical bookstore in Seattle WA, this has been a good week for the paper version of books! After a decade of decline in the UK, independent bookshop numbers are making a comeback. And the FT provided analysis showing the rise of independent bookstores in the US as well. We have to hope, however, that Amazon as a physical book retailer does not decide to gouge the wonderful indies that weathered the storm this last decade and are managing to hold their position, despite the ferocious online cost cutting undertaken by Amazon. Let’s hope this development acknowledges the value of book browsing rather than an attempt to take over the physical bookshops still left in the world!

Books in legal research

We teach a class on ‘Common Law Resources’ to our Year Abroad students who come from European countries, and so are unfamiliar with the common law system of law reporting, how law reports evolved, and how they influenced the structure of the databases used on a daily basis. Each year when I teach this I have to remind myself that I first used Lexis databases before many of these students were born, and thus my knowledge of what is ‘in there’ evolved from my familiarity with the book resources that preceded its introduction.

So how can these young students even begin to conceive of the structure of law ‘stuff’ that they find online, why it has the citation that it has, what the citation relates to, unless they understand how the case law reporting system evolved in England, and then spread around the common law world? So this is very much a book based couple of hours.

By explaining the following, I hope they can come to understand, for example, why they need to select between parallel citations to cases when writing essays:

  • the collation and reprinting of the many Nominate Reports into the English Reports in 1865
  • the creation of the ICLR (Incorporated Council of Law Reporting) to establish uniform law reporting (ICLR celebrated their 150th anniversary last month..)
  • the role of legal editors in the selection of cases, and their role in adding keywords and writing headnotes
  • the difference between authorised and unauthorised reports – not as relevant for the US, but important in the UK, Canada, Australia…
  • the birth of neutral citations and the introduction of paragraph numbers
  • when (and why) to use round and square brackets
  • the competition between publishers to produce new series of subject based reports (often it appears this was perhaps a way to increase their income stream)
  • how case citators distinguish ‘good’ law from ‘bad ‘ law and what this means

All of this can be explained in the abstract, but having books there to illustrate the evolution of law reporting, and to demonstrate what a weekly part means for the Weekly Law Reports; that a Bill is actually printed on green paper; that The Digest (not yet online) has a marvellous table of contents for each legal topic breaking it down to its constituent parts which have been considered in judgments, is invaluable.

The students are used to legislation being in the form of topic-based Codes, so we make sure they are also shown Statutes, Bills and Regulations in book format, and we follow through the passage of an act through Parliament, along with the role of Hansard for Second Reading speeches in order to interpret government intentions when introducing legislation. They see the physical set of 8 volumes of annual regulations, just for England and Wales, in addition to the 4 volumes of annual statutes. At the same time, we also ensure they know that the easiest way to locate consolidated up-to-date UK legislation is via the subscription databases. At least they have an understanding of what paper versions of Bills and Acts look like and that they are not just words on a screen!

We teach book based legal research not only with our European Diploma students, but also the first year undergraduates, in preparation for their first Moots. Of course it is in addition to the usual ‘finding the reading list items, cases, etc. online ’ based courses that we take. We do this because many of the resources for the allocated moot problems are not online. It helps reflect the reality faced in practice at the bar and in firms where they won’t have all the e-resources we have at Oxford.

Each year we review the courses to see whether it is time to drop the books. But the reality is that by understanding that legal database content evolved from a systematic, paper-based approach to law reporting, the students can approach their online research more effectively, and they come to grips quickly with the difference between a case, and act and a journal article online. For us old hands this may seem elementary, but it is just very confusing when you are starting out. A database is a big nebulous something at the end of a computer/cell phone/ tablet/laptop, made up of all sorts of indistinguishable stuff…

(PS If you are a legal history buff, a summary of the development of the law reporting system is available in Daniel Hoadley’s (from ICLR) talk from last year.)

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