Law Reviews Born Digital Pt. 3: Archiving Best Practices On a Shoestring Budget

I would like to start out by saying that Benjamin J. Keele is the man! He is a Research and Instructional Services Librarian at Indiana University's Robert H. McKinney's School of Law, and he takes an active interest in legal periodicals as the liaison to IU's three law journals. He is also an accomplished scholar, and I have learned so much from his scholarship.

I sent Ben an email to get his advice about what my law journals should consider when contemplating a move to go all digital. His response covered all of my concerns -- budget constraints, hardware/software implications, law review turnover, and sending to third parties (LOC, Wexis, Hein). 

Ben gave me permission to post his email response to this blog to further the discussion of an online-only law journal.

The good news about law journals is that their content is pretty basic: it is almost all text. The formatting and pagination are also fairly easy to maintain. The biggest risk for law journal preservation, in my view, is institutional neglect. These suggestions are off the top of my head, but these are the first things I’d suggest if journals at my school were investigating this.

1.       Assign someone (not a temp or visiting person) to be responsible for maintaining the journal materials. The biggest risk is that the library will just forget about acquiring new journal content or lose track of materials in the collection. Since the journals are unique to your school, I’d think of them as a special collection.

2.       Print two copies of each issue (spring for archival paper). Keep one in your special collections and send the other to the Law Library of Congress to fulfill the journal’s mandatory deposit obligations.

3.       Ask the journals to give the library the source files (probably Microsoft Word or maybe WordPerfect). Save those files and make a plain text version and a PDF/A (PDF Archival—this format embeds the fonts and is an ISO standard for long-term preservation of the text as well as the formatting of a text document). PDF/A is an international standard, and plain text is so simple it will probably always be readable. This protects against the risk that proprietary word processors like Word and WordPerfect eventually change so much that they won’t read a file made 20 years ago.

4.       Post the PDF/A files to whatever web site the law school is providing. Try to make the URLs as simple as possible. The goal is to not have to change the URLs when the law school redesigns its web site (or, second best, make it easy to add redirects to the new URLs).

5.       Save all the files (PDF/A, word processor, and plain text) to two different kinds of media (say, one copy on an external hard drive and one copy on CD). Spot check the files on the media once a year to make sure some files can be read properly, and plan to copy everything over to new media every three years. Give a third copy to journal staff if they want, but don’t count on them alone to keep it safe. Clearly label the content and dates on the media and keep it in an area with controlled access.

6.       Document your policies and procedures and share them with the new editors each year and any administrative support staff. If the person responsible for the journal collection leaves the school, pass on the documentation to the successor.

7.       As an extra service, the library could also keep copies of the online sources that are cited in the articles. Just keeping PDFs of those documents would be better than nothing.

This, I think, should be fairly inexpensive. You’d need Adobe Acrobat for the PDF/A conversion (every school I’ve worked at has at least a few computers with that program) and external hard drives and CDs aren’t very expensive—I’d guess no more than a few hundred dollars total. From a technical standpoint, PDF/A and plain text are as good of bets for long-term viability as I can think of, and checking and replacing the storage media every few years should protect against hardware failure. The archival printing is a final backup in case all the digital material fails. Keeping the library responsible for the collection increases the chances that no one will forget about the materials and they won’t be deleted or thrown out when someone does spring cleaning in a journal office or refreshes the web site.

I’m sure your journals  would want to do this, too, but be sure Hein, Westlaw, Lexis, and whatever other aggregators continue to receive new content to add to their databases.

I can't thank you enough, Ben! These off-the-top-of-your-head suggestions are spot on, and you are a true master in this field. I will continue to contemplate and expand on Ben's suggestions to fit within my own institutional structure, but this has given me an amazing start.


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