Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gizmodo: Sony Virtual Library eBook Check Out

In an interesting twist, eBooks are now available for virtual check out from libraries. Gizmodo's article says it all:

My favorite part of Sony's Reader announcement was probably Library Finder, powered by OverDrive, which lets you check out eBooks from your local library—and "thousands" have signed up—for free, wirelessly, direct to your reader. But there's a catch.

There aren't an unlimited number of ebooks—each library has an actual "stock" of ebooks (because the library had to pay for each copy). So, if they have a stock of 5 books, and they're all checked out, you have to wait in a queue for somebody else's book to expire when they hit the 21-day mark. When it's available, you get an email, and then you can go check it out.

Today also marks the launch of Sony's Library Finder application. Sony, working with OverDrive (www.overdrive.com), the leading global digital distributor of eBooks and to libraries, will now offer visitors to the eBook Store by Sony easy access to their local library's collection of eBooks. Thousands of libraries in the OverDrive network offer eBooks optimized for the Sony Reader, and visitors can now find these libraries by typing their zip code into the Library Finder. Through the selected library's download website, visitors can check out eBooks with a valid library card, download them to a PC and transfer to their Reader. At the end of the library's lending period, eBooks simply expire, so there are never any late fees.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Reinvention of Legal Research: The Future Is Now

The Future Isn't Now. Not quite. Just because we can get "free" and easy access to all the primary law in the world, it doesn't mean that we can safely say that we can do "free" and easy legal research.

There's an interesting post on the Huffington Post that's being circulated in the law library blogosphere by Peter Schwartz that's causing some alarm with the declaration that "The Future is Now." I think that Mr. Schwartz is overstating the importance of access to primary materials and fails to understand the real subtlety of legal research.

First off, I agree that the two big publishers, Lexis and West are in big trouble. They have built their empires publishing primary law, and they're making so much money doing so that they've mistakenly come to believe that that's what they are: commercial publishers of primary legal materials.

While it's true that both companies began by publishing primary materials, this isn't the real value that they bring to lawyers, libraries and legal researchers. When West Publishing first began, it brought something to the field that didn't exist before: quick, easy access to cases. That was it's bread and butter. When Lexis entered the scene in the late 1970's, it brought quick access to primary law, too. But over time, West's greatest contributions to the field was it's Key Number System, CJS, and it's great treatises, such as Wright and Miller.

The real trick of legal research (the lawyering part) isn't necessarily finding the law, it is interpreting and understanding it. This isn't done by merely reading a lot of cases, it is done using tools: treatises, classification systems, restatements, journals, etc. Any researcher worth his salt knows, that having every case on the law of insider trading isn't worth a damn toward understanding the law of insider trading; unless you have time to read ten thousand cases!

Today, in the modern legal information economy the useful parts of what West and Lexis are selling us is not the primary law, it's the secondary materials! Lawyers don't actually learn what the law is by reading cases, they learn what it is by reading treatises, handbooks and articles written by scholars and experts who do read the cases.

What West and Lexis under-appreciate with their ridiculous pricing options is that making people pay through the nose for access to primary legal materials - when nearly all of it is available for free in numerous places - is blind. What they both possess that has real value are their secondary materials: key numbers, treatises, etc. This is what they should be selling and promoting. I'm looking for the day when I can cancel all the reporters and access to the primary materials and focus on collecting the secondary. Hopefully, someone will be archiving the primary materials.... just in case.

Peter Schwartz and others correctly point out that lawyers and their libraries may soon simply have to stop subscribing to Lexis and Westlaw because their services are becoming unaffordable. This may soon be true. But if we do, how will we find the law? Without those treatises and classification services, we're hosed. Right?

Friday, August 14, 2009

E-Textbooks come to the Analog World!

The New York Times (and many others) report that textbook sellers and publishers are renting textbooks. The irony is stunning. One of the (many) complaints about e-textbooks has been the fact that you can't really "buy" one. You simply license it. But the paradigm that publishers and booksellers drool over is one where they can license the information without having to sell anything. They would love to sell you the material each time you use it. For years textbook publishers have been complaining about students' resistance to adopting e-textbooks. It appears that they've discovered a way around that obstacle: let students rent the books. They get the real thing, but have to give it back so it can be re-sold.

Watch for the development of special paper that these textbooks will be printed on that can be thoroughly erased when annotated with certain (proprietary?) pens, pencils or highlighters....

I credit Mr. Jerome Rubin, of Lexis fame, with developing the "pay as you go" approach to selling digital information. In my opinion this development is counter-evolutionary, if not downright criminal....

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Following the Yellow Brick Road to the Ephemeral City....

The Ephemeral City and Modern (Digital) Libraries

As we move toward an all born-digital information future feel like I’m wandering a yellow brick road that leads inevitably to the Ephemeral City. A city governed by illusion and impermanence. We need to be careful, lest we all end up with libraries filled with copies of 1984 to our suppliers’ Amazon.....

I’m not sure of the exact reasons, but it seems that law, especially legal academia creates more than it’s fair share of ephemera. Much of it developed by the sources of the law itself: courts, agencies and legislatures. Slip laws, slip opinions, advance sheets, letter rulings from nearly every agency, position papers, reports, speeches, lectures, etc., all material that can/may/should/could have very important effect legally or historically.

Over the years, libraries have handled ephmera many different ways: tossed them, added them to a vertical file, bound the items that seemed important, saved them in princeton boxes and waited for enough to accumulate for binding by year, volume or some other cycle. It also depended on whether the material was regularly published or was subject to editing and re-compiling prior to an official compilation/printing/publishing cycle. This is material that is important, but was not published in a format typical of important material: durable bindings, paper, organizational finding aids, etc. It was relatively easy for librarians to collect ephemera, (it often came unsolicited in the mail, from faculty who had attended conferences, or came as part of a larger subscription arrangement such as from the FDLP, or a looseleaf subscription, etc.) but not easy to catalog, organize and preserve.

I’m very concerned that all material that is “born digital” is, by definition, ephemeral. The recent Amazon/1984 fiasco demonstrated to us that nothing digital is permanent - even if you “bought it” from a reputable dealer. Another example: I was recently referred to Lawrence Lessig’s presentation, “Free Culture,” presented at the 2002 Open Source Conference, as being one of the best presentations, ever. I followed the links to watch the presentation. It’s not available online any more! Not even at Lessig’s own, lessig.org website. I’ve no doubt that this may be a temporary situation and that the presentation can be put back online as easily as it was taken away. The point is, the digital content can be changed - no matter what - with the click of a mouse. No mater what. No matter what! (I’m repeating myself on purpose to challenge those objections in your head.) No matter what....

When I raise the issue of digital information’s archival value, publishers look at me with a look of understanding and empathy, then say, “There are ways to make it permanent. That’s not a problem any more.” I’m sorry, it’s still is a problem. People with links to Lessig’s Free Culture presentation thought that the link they used was permanent. People who bought 1984 from Amazon thought their copy was permanent. Duh. As far as I can tell at this point, the only way to make the material absolutely permanent is to commit it to some format that IS permanent. Etch it in stone, if you like. But a hard disk, e-book reader - even a very expensive one is simply not permanent. No way. No how.

And it’s something that we have to start worrying about or we’re going to be responsible for a catastrophe of remarkable scope. Ask Carl Malamud about going back and “digitizing” Betamax tapes of federal hearings and programs. How easy was it to find betamax players to use to get the material off the tapes? How long will it take before the data on our present servers needs to moved to the next generation of servers. Will we (or whoever the custodians are) move all the data? Or only the data that’s used most often? Most recently? Perhaps only the “good” stuff. The “important” stuff.” Who decides?

If all legal information is “born digital,” a la The Durham Statement, various digital commons, etc., it is my opinion that all of it becomes ephemeral, and this means fluid, quick moving and able to adapt and recombine like a virus. When the law (primary, secondary and everything in between) is published ephemerally like this, how can it possibly be stored, organized and preserved for posterity, scholarship or practice with the level of consistency and authority that users of legal information have taken for granted in the past?

In today’s information economy, when someone wants to see, for example, the first (English) edition of Burlamaqui’s Principles of Natural Law, it’s piece of cake. Once you locate a copy, or a reprint, there it is. The person can hold it, scan it and quickly satisfy him/herself that the copy is authentic. Unless it’s a counterfeit, just holding the book satisfies the user.

What is the equivalent for an article or a book that your find online? Whether it’s in a BePress Digital Commons, a blog, Intelliconnect, Lexis or Westlaw, we’ve not yet developed a technology that can communicate a document’s veracity and authority beyond a doubt.

In my book, it’s all becoming ephemeral....