The future law book is not a book

By Nick Holmes on March 3, 2009
Filed under ebooks

Considering whether we were experiencing the beginning of the end of print, I ended my previous post with the prediction that the law text book would be the last print format left standing (after journals, law reports, looseleafs).

I stand by that. The printed (and bound) book is wonderful information package, designed 500 years ago and changed not a lot since then. We love books – their look, their feel, their portability, their associations. It will be a long, long time before they become an endangered species.

Even the law book will die slowly. But what would accelerate its decline? What is the future law book? Scott Vine and Jordan Furlong have offered their thoughts.

Scott loves books as above and sees the lawyer of the future carrying an e-book reader, holding all the texts (s)he might need but preserving the look and feel of the print versions.

But we know that law books are different. The law changes constantly and the book cannot much longer usefully continue to function as a staple form of reference. So Jordan adds a lot of spice to the future law book, envisaging:

a dynamic, full-scale legal knowledge portal – 24/7 Net-connected, automatically updated, linked to a community of writers and readers, plugged in to a collaborative legal knowledge world well beyond the written word

Sounds good, but, unless I misread him, he’s still talking about a book … with legs. Why would the digital future of the law book be the “book”. There are few law books that are designed to be read from cover to cover; they are reference books, generally dipped into to extract relatively small chunks of information. Authors and publishers are justly proud of the packages they produce, but we readers are not wedded to the law book in the same way.

So, in looking to the future, I ask myself questions like these: Is Wikipedia a book? Is Brittanica? How much longer will we want to shepherd our “own” libraries (think iPod with iTunes) if we can have serviced access to all libraries (check out Spotify)?

The answers lead me to this conclusion: the future of the law book is not the e-book and the platform is not the e-book reader. The web is the platform and if we put on the right pair of glasses we see the future of the law book already taking shape: it is all those web services that are not books and that do not try to replicate them. Soon we’ll be able to hook into that library with whatever device we fancy.

Update: Abracadabra! We now we have Kindle by iPhone but, unsurprisingly, it sucks for non-linear reading.


Hopefully the days of gatekeepers charing a toll on the legal information super highway are numbered. In the USA, it’s Lexis, Westlaw, et alia. Not sure about UK equivalent. Why should any citizen pay for the convenience of access public laws and court decisions from home or office negating the need to truck to the nearest public law library? These are government documents not created by those charging the toll.

by jjray on 18 April 2009 at 12:46 am. #

It’s probably not too surprising to say that the UK equivalent of Lexis and Westlaw as gatekeepers to legal information are called Lexis and Westlaw.

by Stephen on 20 November 2009 at 3:23 pm. #

[…] being updated. I’ve long held that ebooks are not the future of law books or rather that the future law book is not a book, and others agree that law books belong in the […]

by Binary Law · Are (law) ebooks the future? on 8 June 2011 at 12:00 pm. #