Legal Information’s New Coke Moment

One of the high points of the history of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries – L’Association canadienne des bibliothèques de droit (CALL-ACBD) was the “Quebec Riot” of 1989. Carswell had changed the Canadian Abridgment over the prior years, and law librarians intervened to ensure the major reference source in Canadian law continued to work for researchers and libraries, which were the primary customers for the service.

Part of this change was the result of a drive toward comprehensiveness and the resulting increase in volume of the books themselves, which no longer fit on libraries’ shelves, and the resulting increase in price without adequate communication:

The seventies and eighties saw a veritable explosion in the number of reported cases. New jurisdictional and topical law reports, combined with dramatic increases in the number of cases published in the established law report series, overwhelmed both the legal research community and the Canadian Abridgment. (Gary P. Rodrigues, “How CALL Saved the Canadian Abridgment.”

There are many examples of CALL being involved in the development of new legal research tools. The one that comes to mind is that of the founding of the Index to Canadian Legal Literature (ICLR) (again Gary Rodrigues told the story here). Law librarians across the country saw the need for such a resource and came together to collaborate with Carswell (after a few twists and turns that Gary ably narrates) to create a national tool to access Canadian legal commentary. To the best of my knowledge it continues to have contributions from librarians across the country to make sure regional publications are included. A nod was made to access at the time, and the index was also included on Quicklaw, so those subscribers would also have the benefit, and they entered into an agreement that it be available there too.

In the last several years we have been more and more regularly reminded of access to justice issues across Canada (see here, here, and here for an unscientific list of recent articles on the subject that came up in a simple Google search), and given the fact that there are so many places in Canada where access to law libraries is so limited to members of the legal profession. This raises questions for me about the wisdom of CALL members contributing free labour to a commercial product that is not available to many of the people who most need access to legal information.

At the same time, recent years has seen an explosion in innovative ways to publish legal information in an accessible way, including such tools as Wikipedia, legal blogs, and *ahem* and CanLII Connects. This appears to be accelerating rather than not, with many courts now accepting Wikipedia as an acceptable source for legal authority.

But what does this have to do with New Coke you ask? The thing about New Coke is that it tasted better, but customers killed it because it didn’t taste like the Coca-Cola they were used to.

New Coke advertisment

I worry that these new legal research tools will suffer the same fate.

As part of their professional ethos, law librarians (and to some degree librarians generally) have looked to certain markers of authority and quality in information sources that these sources may not have: famous authors, bibliographic access points such as indexes and tables of contents, authoritative publishers, and professional editing. This may lead them to undermine these new sources that have so much potential to make the Canadian legal information landscape more accessible.

Libraries have always bridged the gaps when published sources were not available:

Medieval scribe

Some notable heirs to the Medieval librarians with their can-do attitude in the Canadian law library community include the Courthouse Library of British Columbia with their Clicklaw Wikibooks, The Osgoode Law School Library with the Osgoode Digital Commons, and the Law Society of Saskatchewan Libraries with the Law Society’s publishing program. There is so much room to explore opportunities that the digital environment and improving technologies like print on demand publishing create to alleviate the issues of access to legal information.

Resistance to exploring the newly possible is not limited to legal information, here is a blog post discussing librarians’ prejudice against print on demand with a focus on professional development literature:

I am personally interested in this issue because I am a former librarian who owns a book publishing company that uses print-on-demand printing. We primarily publish library science titles, so I view our customers as my colleagues as well. It bothers me that many librarians would have a bias against our titles if they knew about how we print them. We use POD because in our field sales volumes are typically low. I decided to go with POD when I formed my company after extensive conversations with a head of another publishing company that publishes a lot of LIS titles. In those conversations I gleaned important and useful information about the publishing business, and I learned that most publishers in the LIS field are using POD, for the same reason I decided to – being in a small, niche market. (Rory Litwin, “Librarians’ knowledge and attitudes about print-on-demand: an informal study.” Library Juice blog)

The challenges facing a small publisher of library science titles seem similar to those facing those who want to publish legal information about the law of small jurisdictions or on legal commentary on topics that don’t focus on large profitable legal practices. Surely securities and tax law aren’t the most important areas of law for Canadian society, but you wouldn’t know that from legal publishing output.

Maybe it’s time to consider changing how we understand what makes a valuable contribution to legal information. There are large costs to moving forward in the old way. From my calculations using the Thomson Reuters Annual Report (available for download here), Thomson (Carswell) made ~$113 million in revenue from Canadian online legal products alone in 2016 (here are my calculations, so you can play with my assumptions if you care to).

Thomson’s offerings are good products, and I don’t want to tell anyone not to buy them, but this kind of revenue going to one publisher shows that there are resources in the system to make better access available for everyone.

We just have to be ready for legal information to look different. It just might taste better too.


  1. One publishing idea that never got very far was to use the Index to Canadian Legal Literature as the architectural framework for a single database that would include all of the articles and publications listed in the Index.

    The scale and complexity of the undertaking meant that it never quite got off the ground. It overwhelmed those who could best undertake the project.

    I still think that it is still a great idea, well worth the effort in that it would create an easily searched and accessible database of Canadian secondary content that would become an essential part of legal research in Canada. The key is its success is to “think big”.

    It may be an idea that CANLII should consider. The rights to use the Index rest in part with CALL and I can’t imagine that Carswell Thomson would hinder its development in any way. Just an idea to consider.