Loose-Leaf Legal Publications: A Dialogue

[What follows is an imagined dialogue between a lawyer and a librarian, regarding a fictional loose-leaf publication]

Lawyer: I’d like to see what you have in the library on the crime of jabberwock-slaying, please.

Librarian (without consulting the catalog): Yes, the seminal treatise on the topic is Carroll on Jabberwocks, shelved under call number… you know what, I’ll just grab it off the shelf for you.

Lawyer: Thanks, I’ve never really understood what call numbers are, anyway.

[Librarian returns carrying four heavy, ugly binders]

Lawyer: So, which one should I use?

Librarian: Well, you just turn here to this table of contents, and it looks like slaying is volume four, but I grabbed all four volumes just in case you also need to know about Jabberwock conservation or Jabberwock protection treaties in international law.

Lawyer: Uh, thanks, but why are they in binders? This whole thing seems like a mess. Coeurdelion on Feudalism has such nice leather covers—I keep the whole set in my office just for that serious-lawyer look…

Librarian: As long as you handle them carefully, I’m sure there won’t be an issue. They have to be in binders so that we can replace the sections once they’re out of date. This format lets us update the book without needing to pay for a new copy with a leather binding every time the law changes. This way, we have one cover that lasts for decades and we just send one of our library staffers every month with a bunch of new pages to stuff inside the binder, and they take out the old pages. It’s a little bit tedious—our last staffer quit this week—said she’d rather be a kitchen wench! But I’m sure we’ll hire a new loose-leaf filer soon.

Lawyer: Wonderful! So it’s completely up to date!

Librarian (looking sheepish): Well, it’s up to date as of a few months ago, when the law changed. After that the author rewrote the affected sections, and then sent them to the editors, who sent them back for corrections, and then the new sections went to the printers and then they were packaged into updates and sent to the libraries through the post and then the library staff stuffed the new pages into the binders. So other than that small delay, they’re totally up to date.

Lawyer: Hmmmmm. I forgot to mention that I’m also looking for some historical information. You see, I probably shouldn’t be sharing this, but my client says this isn’t the first jabberwock that he slew. I need to see this, er, book as it appeared roughly two-score years ago when my client was a beamish boy.

Librarian: Oh, frumious bandersnatch! I knew we shouldn’t be using the old pages to light the beltane fires! It’s just that they were becoming a tripping hazard in our library annex. You see, once you stuff the updates into the binders, you have a stack of paper you took out, but it’s completely incomplete: pages 1-6, 8, & 14 from volume 1, pages 56-99 from volume 2, and you can’t ever put it back together again, because some decades volume 4 gets updated 100 times and volume 3 doesn’t need any updates. Those international treaties don’t change often, you know. Try as we might, we couldn’t figure out how to organize them, so eventually we just got rid of the old piles of paper.

Lawyer, impatiently: So all you have for me is a resource that isn’t up to date, doesn’t have any historical information, and is contained in these four ugly binders instead of a nice leather illuminated manuscript? Why do you keep buying these?

Librarian: You’re complaining to me? You’re not the one who has to stuff these stupid pages into binders month after month after month when no one even uses them most years! But it’s the only way the publishers offer Carroll on Jabberwocks. If we don’t buy it in loose-leaf format, we can’t buy it at all!

Lawyer: There must be a better way! [He picks up the binders, but in his irritation, he only grabs the front cover of volume four. With an ominous click, the binder opens and the pages billow through the room.] Frumious bandersnatch!!

The End [and hopefully the end of the loose-leaf publication]


The End of Loose-leaf Publication?

Is there really any reason for loose-leaf publications in the age of electronic legal research? I understand that loose-leafs had a purpose when a typical bound-book publication schedule was too slow, and day by day updates were unwieldy for a researcher who wanted to know the status of an issue in certain rapidly-changing areas of law. Today, electronic publications can be updated much faster than loose-leafs, and without any of the hassle of shipping and inter-filing paper updates. Additionally, loose-leaf publications have no ability to be kept for historical research, so they are more hassle and less valuable than bound publications in print. I understand publishers are rapidly shifting away from this publication method, but I don’t understand why the shift has not been faster. In short, why do libraries still buy them?

Loose-leaf publications are the bane of many of my colleagues’ work lives. A loose-leaf is a publication which is deliberately not bound into a book, but rather designed to be used in a three-ring binder or other temporary binding. That way, a publisher can send updates to certain sections of a book without needing to republish the entirety. A library (or law firm, etc.) receives an envelope with a set of instructions, i.e. open volume 10 of the series and remove pages 3-17 and replace with pages 3-17 from this update, then turn to section II of volume 11 and replace pages 7-60 with the update pages, etc. etc.

There have always been a number of issues with this method. First, it’s incredibly time-consuming for someone to update a loose-leaf publication, and as someone who has done this task myself, I can attest that it is dull. It is also very important to be precise, because if you were supposed to discard pages 3-17 and you accidentally discard page 18 as well, the book will be lacking page 18 until such time as the law changes and that page is finally updated. Of course someone could rip a page out of a bound book and create the same problem, but people aren’t constantly being sent around libraries to rip out and replace pages from bound books, so the problem of missing pages must be exacerbated by the loose-leaf format. Besides the dangers of a careless staffer replacing the wrong pages, a library is also subject to the whims of the postal service. The updates are numbered, of course, but woe betide the library which loses an update in the mail and needs to figure out which sections of a loose-leaf are not up-to-date.

Perhaps I entered the profession at the wrong time, but I’ve never seen the purpose of loose-leaf publications compared to an electronic database. My colleagues who are particularly focused on preservation are distressed by the idea of loose-leafs, since it’s nearly impossible to keep the updates in any kind of usable order, so once the pages are replaced, the old pages are lost to history. As far as I know, the only reason my library keeps buying them is that certain publishers make certain well-respected titles available solely in this format. I know that for a publisher, switching to electronic publication requires a platform that can handle updates and access restrictions, but it has to be easier and more cost-effective than printing and mailing updates (and dealing with the hassle of sending replacement updates when the post inevitably snarls the delivery). I hope that 2022 will be the end of the loose-leaf in legal publishing.


  1. We have a pile of two years’ with of loose-leaf updates sitting around our empty office space. Maybe publishers are still selling these because customers like us barely realize we’re still getting them!

  2. The last looseleaf work that I can remember publishing from scratch was probably around 1997, so I reckon that their fate is firmly sealed. Of course, they are still delivering profits for some publishers. See

  3. This is both hilarious and accurate. Librarians hate them. Lawyers hate them. Just get rid of them.

    And don’t even get me started on the publishing racket that is loose-leaf updates. In short order those updates will cost you more than the first physical copy, and the publishers seem to make it deliberately challenging to unsubscribe from the service.

    And citing them! Good lord, I hate citing to loose-leafs.

  4. Sounds like the long-established ways of generating revenues,, are still usefully employed.

  5. I am a bit old-fashioned, but some things are much easier to use in loose-leaf format than they are digitally. If I don’t know precisely what I’m looking for in Houlden & Morawtez or Holmsted & Watson, I’d much rather browse the loose-leaf than look at them online. (I confess I have the luxury of having library staff who do the updates.) Not a loose-leaf, but Halsbury’s Laws of England is painful to use in its digital form.