Building the Information We Need (Starting in the Law Library)

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When I look at the legal publishing landscape, I see gaps that are not being filled in the existing environment. Some information needs are well addressed; for example, there are excellent platforms to access openly available and commercial case digests, and there are many books on torts. These tools are widely needed and used, so there are clear incentives for commercial and non-profit entities to provide them. In contrast, individual organizations also frequently hire consultants to provide the precise information they need to make decisions or operate. However, there is a significant gap between the information that thousands of people need and the information that one organization needs that is often not served well.

The existing environment handles legal texts well. Commercially published books are generally not too expensive, though I know this is not always the case, and publishers have good methods for selection and quality control. Widely needed books are also good candidates for open publishing with contributors and funding available to make them happen. Truly niche books that are written for a very small audience because the author has a passion for the subject are also reasonably well served in an open publishing environment as they can be made available cheaply to be shared where they are needed.

In addition to cultural and topical concerns, the information landscape is defined by business decisions, market forces, and organizational priorities. Books are usually 250-350 pages, because many of the costs of book production are fixed, especially in print. And customers are used to paying certain amounts for particular kinds of publications. This means that both shorter and longer books are generally not economic to produce as people are unwilling to pay the prices they would need to be sold at to be economical. However, focusing on a particular length means that some topics that are more suited for traditional topics than others are prioritized over others. Ebooks in contrast don’t have the same constraints on length because they don’t have the same cost structure, though there are still limits for long volumes as editing can be prohibitively expensive.

One of the substantial under served areas I see is the practical information people need to do their jobs well. Taking law librarians as an example, there are books published on topics like law librarianship generally, but in my experience, they are not sufficiently targeted to be truly applicable for people working in the field. Partly this is an artifact of the publishing landscape: books for experts have smaller audiences than books for specialists. There may be journal articles, blogs, or other sources of information, but they are usually not arranged coherently to allow a synthesis of a topic. Short pieces may give good information, but they are often too short to cover a topic sufficiently to be useful for larger subjects even when they are published in series.

Because of the gap in what’s created and published as a community, we aren’t building the resources we need to share information well. One of the most pressing topics I see for the law library community is statistics. Library staff need better insights into how resources are used and what stakeholders need to make decisions and convey the importance of what they do to funders and communities. Instead, we don’t have accepted industry best practices for what data should be collected, what it means, or how it can be communicated. This is a perfect example of a topic that is poorly handled in the current landscape: it has a small audience, is technically challenging, and is both too small to be suitable for a book topic and too large to be viable as an article. It is also not sufficiently valuable in any individual organization to be something that consultants would be likely to be hired to create, partly because having shared standards that are widely understood and used is more valuable than an individual institution creating something internal.

This has led me to consider what I can do to help remedy this need. Those of us with careers working at the intersection of legal non-profits, legal information, and legal publishing, always need to know where the money to pay for our work is coming from. If you don’t know that, then you can’t pursue your mission sustainably. I have been thinking about ways to resolve this conflict and looking for an alternate model for how we can fund what we need as a community. My proposal is to run a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of and publication of a book on statistics for law libraries with copies of the book going to the funders. Over time I hope that this will be the start of a program that will fill some of the gaps in information provision.

Please take a look at the campaign page to learn more ( Perhaps you will be willing to pitch in to help create this resource or perhaps you will think of your own gap to fill.

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