Radical Trust and Legal Information

trustIn Library 2.0 and Web 2.0 philosophies, there is a concept called “Radical Trust.” The idea behind Radical Trust is pretty simple: trust your patrons. Trust them to leave comments on your blogs. Trust them to edit wikis. Trust them to add tags to your Flickr photos or OPACs. Yes, there will always be jerks and 12 year old hackers with nothing better to do than vandalize the materials that you have so lovingly placed out in the Internet for people to interact with. But guess what? You also have to trust that the community will step up and re-edit out the wiki mis-edits and/or trust that are users are savvy enough to ignore a trollish comment on a blog.

Radical trust really isn’t that radical..it’s just trust. It only feels radical to us because librarians and other gatekeepers of information have spent centuries trying our damndest to preserve, protect and defend information resources from theft, loss and corruptions.  As I’ve said before, this is a noble and just raison d’etre.  However, the digital age has changed the game in many ways.  We don’t need to keep materials chained up and out of patrons hands because they may destroy them…now we can digitize and allow  many more users access to them.  And if they do somehow corrupt the digital versions?  Well, it’s easy enough to have master copies locked away that can replace the corrupted versions.

In Law LibraryLand, there is currently a major issue of conflict between librarians and information providers in the area of authentication of digital legal materials. I don’t claim to be an expert on the issue and I haven’t entirely decided what is the best solution to the conflict between the two camps. However, John Joergenson, the digital services librarian at Rutgers University School of Law – Camden, wrote an excellent blog post last year which breaks down much of the conflict.
The American Association of Law Libraries has recently issued a report on Authentication of State Documents which outlines the concerns of the librarian community. If I’m reading it correctly, here’s the problem. (1) Digital materials are vulnerable to lapses in management and control, corruption and tampering. (2) To make up for these vulnerabilities, the digital materials need to equivalent to the official print versions. (3) To become equivalent, they must become “authentic.” (4) To be “authentic”, they must be capable of being “authenticated.” (Um…yeah.) There is no standard or endorsed method of authentication, but it can involve things like digital water marks, chain of custody, certification, etc.

Currently no state-provided (i.e. FREE) digital legal materials are “authentic” and as such, “citizens and law researchers may reasonably doubt their authority and should approach such resources critically.” I guess these researchers are supposed to try and get a hold of a print resource (assuming a library is close by, the state still issues a print verison and/or the library hasn’t canceled its order) OR utilize Wexis (which also isn’t “authentic” and is quite costly)?

This makes no sense to me.

Can someone please explain to me what steps that free information providers like Justia, the Legal Information Institute and Public Resource – or even Google Scholar – need to be taking so that they are given the same respect as Lexis and Westlaw?

I propose it’s time we extend the concept of radical trust upwards…not only should we trust our users to take the information we safeguard and remix and run with it, but also maybe we should start trusting people who want to provide the information to our patrons.I could also put in a plea for open source ILSes, but that’s another blog post for another day.

If an entity like the Legal Information Institute wants to take raw data from the government and put it up on the web in a more easily navigable way than what the government provides on the GPO website, maybe we should trust that they are not altering the text of the materials or even being sloppy in the updating of them? If enough providers get in the game, there will be plenty of copies to compare against to make sure they are accurate.  Why is accuracy not enough?

Perhaps if librarians can learn to radically trust information brokers, we will be able to work together and start to see new ways to use and manipulate legal information. Input from the librarian community will allow the information providers to make more useful tools and provide stability, which in turn, will lead to better donor funding for long term preservation and maintenance of the information. And finally, patrons will be able to access accurate legal information much more easily, which ultimately, is what everyone wants.

Like I said, I have no answers.  Personally, in my ideal world, the various state and federal governments would step up and provide stable and easily navigable law for free.  However, as my mother always says, “…and people in Hell want ice water.”  Clearly, we as librarians are going to have to choose between forever being at the mercy of Wexis or working with the free legal information providers.  I’m hoping that by writing this, a dialog can be opened between the  library camp and the legal information world and some solutions can be negotiated.


  2 comments for “Radical Trust and Legal Information

  1. Mikhail Koulikov
    February 7, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    Can someone please explain to me what steps that free information providers like Justia, the Legal Information Institute and Public Resource – or even Google Scholar – need to be taking so that they are given the same respect as Lexis and Westlaw?

    At least in my mind, mostly, they just need to be able to stick around for another dozen years. Right now, good as they are, they are still at the ‘good idea’ stage, but the response they get is generally along the lines of ‘why should I trust a good idea with five years of track record over a good idea with thirty years of track record.’

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