I was recently at a discussion forum, where a legal publisher gave the audience some updates on where they are with their legal ebook offering. The jist of the presentations and discussions was - legal ebooks are great, people love them, if you aren’t using them yet, you will be very soon.
Now this isn’t a new topic to me, I’ve considered how I’d like legal ebooks to work a few times, so forgive me if you've heard this from me before. I identified some of the main problems I think legal ebooks would have to overcome before a law firm library would be happy to begin using them, and I want to see if the recent massive rise in the use of mobile computing devices such as smartphones and tablets has addressed any of the issues I first had with ebooks in a legal setting.
Devices vs desktops
Previously, the big push was to get legal textbooks available in an electronic form through web services such as Westlaw, and access them via desktops computers, and laptops. This is still in evidence, but the newly favoured way of accessing content is now through tablet devices, and to a lesser extent, through smartphones.
However, there are still many unresolved issues around the use of tablets and smartphones, some of which were discussed at the forum by the speakers, or in conversations between sessions.
- Despite the publishers saving money on printing and distribution costs, the pricing for the ebook is equivalent to the physical book.
- Only one book can be read at a time, but devices can potentially hold or access many ebooks at a time.
- Who pays for the purchase of the device?
- Who maintains the device/supports it?
- Who pays for the internet connection which the device will usually need in order to download content?
- Who pays for the cost of the ebooks, if they can only provide benefit to one individual rather than many?
- Is there any discount for bulk-buying multiple copies of the same text, to be distributed to multiple devices?
- Who is responsible for training and supporting users of ebooks and mobile devices - the library, or IT?
- Increased portability of materials
- Users can carry large amounts of books to court, consultations and home without being laden down with massive piles of paper.
- Ability to access materials immediately
- Consultations and discussions on-site with clients often mean new legal issues can arise, and will need to be investigated with further research. Being able to check materials immediately rather than wait until the user returns to the office or library means that client matters can be dealt with more efficiently.
- Mobile working is made easier
- Notes and annotations made via one device can be synced with other devices the ebook is loaded onto, if multiple devices are allowed to host the content simultaneously.
- Content updating
- It could be possible for updates to books (currently issued as supplement) to be integrated to the content of the ebook version seamlessly. Or looseleaf publications could move to an ebook format with regular electronic updates.
- Resistance of judiciary to the presence of devices in the court
- It’s difficult to rely on your materials being available via your tablet, when the Sheriff or Judge may decide to reject their use in their courtroom.
- Alienation of and increased need for technical support for less technically literate users
- Some staff will not be confident in using mobile devices, and will resist using them. In order to assist
- Assumption by device users that because it's digital, the content is more current than it actually is
- Merely by being available digitally, there will be a level of belief that the content of the ebook will be current, unlike with physical books where users understand that the contents will only be current at the date printed. Some sort of clear indication of the content currency date must be shown, possibly as a footnote on every page or on every “opening” of the ebook in order to remind users that the content may be dated.
- Loss of, or damage to device
- If you lose or break the device holding your ebook collection, what happens? Are those books gone for good? Can the publisher disable them remotely if required? Can they be reloaded onto a new device free of charge?
- Security of devices
- If a device cannot be securely locked, if it is ever lost or stolen all the materials on it will be openly accessible to anyone. If the device has ebooks loaded, and the user has been annotating them in relation to a case, sensitive information (both personal or commercial) may be revealed.
As far as I can tell, there’s still no solution to most of the issues I raised earlier in this post.The fact that stockpiling texts on one device means that access to those books is restricted to one user at a time, whereas the paper equivalent has no equivalent access issues for using multiple volumes. The issues around purchase, support and payment for devices and services also seem not to have been resolved either. There seems to be no prospect of any price deal for bulk buying ebooks to make them competitive with their paper versions.
So, what’s my conclusion? Well, to me it seems that currently, the best format for a legal ebook...isn’t a book. It’s a looseleaf, particularly those used extensively in court. The ability to instantly update a court practitioner handbook like Parliament House Book in a portable format would be a great selling point for users. Even if it had a subscription model that priced electronic updates at the same level as the paper updating service, the saving in admin costs would make it an attractive option.