Be Careful What You Wish for – the Pitfalls of Electronic Legal Deposit

Legal deposit

‘We all start out with hope and end with experience’

I wrote in the past about our role as a legal deposit library, and the joys and frustrations this brings. Things have moved on a lot since then, and the changes that have come about have created a whole new range of issues for us to consider.

For a law library the downside of paper legal deposit was that not all publishers deposited as a matter of course; that parts of loose leaf services often were missed and unable to be claimed; and the law report and journal parts also did not arrive now and then. So parts of our collection were not as complete as one would expect. There was an added workload in checking publisher catalogues and trying to reconcile these with what should have been supplied but wasn’t.

These complaints may seem minor, but in a collection as large as ours, tracking a few errant issues every day or every week mounts up in terms of workload, and over the years gaps have grown. But the one great bonus of LD for a law library is that we do not have to pay for those titles, just the processing and housing of them.

The University library, who distributed the funding for collections, factored this in to our allocations, and so we actually have always had a very bare bones materials budget by comparison to any of our peers. So when we first heard about the transition to electronic legal deposit, we were quite enthusiastic, as we mistakenly believed it could possibly enhance the LD and allow us a campus wide alternative to the restriction of one book in one location. In a way it did provide that, but it not quite how we hoped…

ELD is born..

The UK legislation to introduce Electronic Legal Deposit (ELD) came into force in April 2013. Since then the British Library, in conjunction with the other Legal Deposit Libraries, manages the ELD programme, providing the IT resources and hosting the journal articles and books that have been deposited.

The procedure was established that book/journal deposited titles would be replaced by the electronic equivalent. Not all publishers were able to switch at once, and many did not want to. But through an agreed process, the LD libraries drew up lists of those publishers we agreed could be transferred, and those we had on ‘wait’ lists.

A shortcoming of the Legal Deposit scheme in the UK is that the scheme includes three public libraries (The British, and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales) and three academic – the Bodleian (where LD started in the early 17th century), Cambridge and Trinity College Dublin.

Impacts of LD are very different; for example, in a public library, reducing space for book storage is vital; e-access thus provides a welcome alternative means of access. In national public libraries, users are accustomed to going to the library to access a resource, book or online, and to using the material in situ, as it can’t be borrowed. By contrast, academic libraries provide 24 hour online access to e-resources irrespective of where the user is located, as well as extensive borrowing of materials. This clash of purposes has played out badly as ELD has grown, because the single concurrent user access to these ELD resources is restricted to pcs based in the libraries of the LD libraries.

ELD also does not permit the making of copies or sharing the resource. This will be devastating in the long term for the Inter Library, or Document Delivery services, that libraries have shared for decades.

Explaining to our students that some electronic material is not available on their mobiles or laptops is one frustrating aspect of ELD for the academic libraries. But an even greater one is looming. So far, the major legal publishers have not joined the migration to ELD over paper. For the few that have, we have had to purchase a subscription to titles no longer sent in paper to ensure access which allows copying. This is an additional cost to our budget we never planned. And, in addition, if we want the electronic access, we have to purchase that on top of the ELD access, to ensure equity of concurrent access to all students wherever they are based.

Battles to come

We are still in the phase of being able to approve, defer or reject submissions from publishers to transfer to ELD. Until now the law libraries have successfully ensured large legal publishers stay on the reject list, but we are not sure how much longer this will last. So as an unrepentant believer in the need for a library of record to have paper as well as online versions of resources, I face the threat of a lack of funding in the future to purchase that which we previously received free of charge and by right.

The attraction for publishers is easy to see – they submit articles or books/book chapters to the British Library as files,. There is no printing, packing, postage anymore. It is seamless from their point of view. So of course they are keen to switch.

By last September we reached the figure of one million e-articles deposited with the Bodleian via ELD. When searching our catalogue, SOLO, the holdings statement for any ELD item displays this caveat: Online access is restricted: available via Bodleian Libraries reading room PCs only

(Search the Journal of Contemporary History to see an example).

One saving grace for law is that cases and journals are often held in huge databases, unsuited to the structure of ELD provision where Portico is used for publisher deposit. This may change with time, as e-books with their own DOI, etc, become more widespread even amongst legal publishers, but it will not be soon.

It was short-sighted of the government to accept that ELD should have identical restrictions to Legal Deposit books – ie, single user access, and at a restricted library pc that allows printing but not downloading. In an age of constant connectivity to anything anywhere, this approach to ELD seems a step backwards to many. The poor people who have to explain these constraints to bewildered users are the library staff, who also find the restrictions irksome.

I have not investigated how other countries are managing Electronic Legal Deposit, but there is a very good summary from 2014 by the International Publishers Association. Be aware, if you come to do any legal research at one of the LD libraries in the UK, that whilst we have a broader collection of e-resources than ever, where and how you use some of it is still constrained.

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