Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: Essential Law for Information Professionals

Stuart Hannabuss picks another winner but wonders whether legal essentialism is enough for information professionals.

When you see a retail centre in a town, it is natural to wonder how central it really is : is it merely a claim? So when words like 'essential' appear in book titles, we again wonder whether it is really so. Years of publishers' blurbs and puffs induce irony, especially as we look along shelves of books with similar titles (and claims), above all for students and young professionals - essential psychology, essential statistics, essentials for Continuing Professional Development, essential law.

However, in this case, with Paul Pedley's Essential Law for Information Professionals, 'essential' is really so, and it doesn't merely float about like a Platonic idea. The first edition of the book appeared in 2003 and immediately established itself as a popular training and student text. It covered copyright and data protection, freedom of information and defamation, breach of confidence and privacy, professional liability, contracts and licensing agreements, Internet and e-commerce law, and computer misuse. Its context was applicable law at the time in England and Wales, though the issues it raised applied even more widely.

It was a clear, business-like introduction, as one would expect from anyone associated with The Economist (Pedley is head of research at The Economist Intelligence Unit). He is also a popular speaker and trainer on the information circuit, and author/editor of two other recent works likely to interest readers of this review. One is Managing Digital Rights: A Practitioner's Guide (Facet Publishing, 2005, good though uneven) and the other is Digital Copyright (an ebook from Facet Publishing, 2005, no print version planned, that has good priorities with Web sites and databases, legal and technical protections, linking and downloading, licences and open access and virtual learning up front, and conventional material like economic and moral rights at the end). Two further useful texts, then, to add to the growing stable of sources available to information professionals [1-9].

By including commentary on things like legal deposit for Web sites and the re-use of public sector and Crown copyright material, Digital Copyright revealingly pointed forward to what was in the pipeline for the second edition of Essential Law. Now it's here so what - and what new and better (because things always improve) has it got?

There are brand new chapters on the re-use of public sector information and its associated schemes, two new chapters on disability discrimination and human rights (relevant case law in the second, and helpful cross-references in the index to related issues like privacy and confidence), and another on the legal deposit and harvesting of electronic sources like databases, post-Legal Deposit Act 2003.

Pedley has provided an eclectic glossary of terms like 'civil law' and 'phishing', prescribed library and 'sui generis', and the usual lists of statutes and European Directives and case law. New chapters and old (revised versions of those which appeared in the first edition) all start with clear summaries of contents, and end with notes (good for sources) and further information about relevant organisations. The new edition is pleasantly printed and robust for a paperback these days (where paper quality often suffers), and the price is predictable for libraries and affordable for personal purchase at today's rates. The blurb calls it 'a classic text' and there is far more than a grain of truth in that claim. If I had to take a book of its type to a desert island, this might well be the one (though, to be honest, I think The Oxford Book of Exploration or a copy of the Metaphysical poets might go in first).

Essential Law also updates things from the first edition. We find droit de suite in the chapter on copyright (librarians involved with art works will find this relevant, otherwise it is a lawyerly matter), the impact of the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003 in the chapter on data protection, a new short chapter on the Information Commissioner (who in both England & Wales and in Scotland is responsible for both data protection and freedom of information) (though this chapter should have been an appendix), new material on contracts and licensing, and a larger chapter on cybercrime (following the 2004 All-Party Internet Group report on revising the Computer Misuse Act 1990).

It was at this point that, fresh from reading Whither the Legal Web? by Nick Holmes and Delia Venables (accessible by way of Nick Holmes's infolaw Web site [10]) that I started wondering whether 'essential' things were rather too 'essentialist'. Whither the Legal Web is full of good things, and not just for information professionals, and has the strength, along with many other formally legal interpretations of law, of pointing to what happens when things go right or wrong (or, more usually, something in between). As everyone knows, essentialism is the belief that entities can be defined by their characteristics, that murder can be defined in objective terms, that biological species are what they are, and that gender and race are definable from fixed traits. So how does this rather speculative philosophical stuff apply to Essential Law and its ilk?

Take cybercrime and computer misuse : all the information about legislation and interpretation, phishing and pharming and intellectual property infringement in the world takes us only so far. The law is big and slow and costly - day-to-day decisions (usually not between right-and-wrong but between right-and-right) work on a more immediate - and complex - level, so knowing the framework of the law is just the beginning. Take disability discrimination : disability discrimination law keeps changing in the UK, and elsewhere, and case law applies and interprets and extends statutory law. Pedley cites Maguire v Sydney, an Australian sports case, codes of practice for online services to the disabled, new duties of compliance on public bodies, but, for anyone that bit further on than the mere student wanting to know the ground rules, a feel for something more tangible and work-based would be welcome.

So, while the second edition provides its customary (and expected) good guidance about breach of confidence and privacy, about re-use of public sector information, about FOI and professional liability (the last, rightly, with a sidelong glance at professional ethics), about AUPs (acceptable use policies) and human rights (leaning on media-related cases like von Hannover), and sources like JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) for contracts and licensing, while all this is so, that's where it stops.

A long walk off a short pier. Too many legal textbooks in this field do this. They say 'we're not lawyers', 'this book is not intended for lawyers', but 'a knowledge of the law is essential today for information professionals'. Suitable disclaimers are made on the verso of the title page or in the preface. There are identifiable reasons for this, and exonerations for it, notably the existence (if you look hard) of some good journal articles that probe further and deeper), but what we have in law textbooks for information professionals at present is a pervasive essentialism. It rests on the view that it is enough to define the legal, and what information professionals need to know, merely by presenting areas of relevant law, and then leaving it up to them to apply it. Somehow. Ethics is a field rather like it, though some change can be seen there.

Essential Law is a text I shall use and recommend confidently to students and practitioners alike. It will do well and deserves to do so. Yet there is an essentialism hovering over the current spate of legal books for information professionals (and these are, increasingly, starting to duplicate each other, despite the ever-changing character of applicable law, above all international and Internet law). This is very much a hybrid field because information professionals, IT and KM, telecoms and other folk are all involved, (with a range of publishers from Facet and Ashgate to Kluwer and The MIT Press). If this field is to mature, it should go beyond essentialism and start applying - really applying and interpreting - the legal stuff out there.

Such a progression would give it credibility, above all with the information professionals who really deal with legal and ethical dilemmas every day and often at quite a strategic level (for example FOI administrators and records managers). Even at more operational levels, experienced information professionals want to compare notes - not about what the law is but about interpreting and applying it pragmatically, in the real world, where conflicts of interest arise, advice is confusing or contradictory, or where mistakes provoke shame. Some uneven steps in this direction are being made, as in otherwise uneven publications from the Howarth Information Press like Croft on legal solutions in electronic reserves, Austin on electronic reserves and copyright, and Rupp-Serrano on library licensing, though these are not always transferable or the best examples [11-13]. Smith took a good line, too, and Cornish's FAQ approach is helpful in a piece-meal sort of way.


So a two-handed clap for Essential Law which, for what it is and of its type, is an excellent book that I'm very pleased to have and would want for my students and my library. But a one-handed clap for the genre as a whole, for its essentialism and for the frustrations it often sets up when you get to the end of a section and ask 'so what?' or 'what about me?'. The genre is in transition to a new stage of market maturity - on the creative curve, it needs to jump up to a new level, or else, like all mature products ('Marmite' springs to mind), it will go steadily into decline. In one sense, we've already had enough, at one level, of law books for information professionals. In another, the real challenge has only just begun.


  1. Armstrong, Chris and Bebbington, Laurence W (2004) Staying Legal: A Guide to Issues and Practice Affecting the Library, Information and Publishing Sectors. Second edition. London, Facet Publishing.
  2. Austin, Brice (2004) Reserves, Electronic Reserves, and Copyright. Binghamton NY, The Haworth Information Press.
  3. Brennan, Paul (2003) Law for IT Professionals. Welwyn Garden City, Emis Professional Publishing.
  4. Cornish, Graham (2004) Copyright: Interpreting the Law for Libraries, Archives and Information Services. Fourth edition. London, Facet Publishing.
  5. Croft, Janet Brennan (2004) Legal Solutions in Electronic Reserves and the Electronic Delivery of Interlibrary Loan. Binghamton NY, The Haworth Information Press.
  6. Lloyd, Ian (2000) Information Technology Law. Fourth edition. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  7. Manton, Steve (2006) Integrated Intellectual Asset Management: A Guide to Exploiting and Protecting your Organization's Intellectual Assets. Aldershot and Burlington VT, Gower.
  8. Norman, Sandy (2004) Practical Copyright for Information Professionals. London, Facet Publishing.
  9. Oppenheim, Charles (2001) The Legal and Regulatory Environment for Electronic Information. Tetbury, Infonortics.
  10. Infolaw Web site http://www.infolaw.co.uk/
  11. Rupp-Serrano, Karen ed. (2005) Licensing in Libraries: Practical and Ethical Aspects. Binghamton NY, The Haworth Information Press.
  12. Sammons, Peter (2005) Buying Knowledge: Effective Acquisition of External Knowledge. Aldershot and Burlington VT, Gower.
  13. Smith, Kelvin (2004) Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide to Implementing the Act. London, Facet Publishing.

Further Reading

Author Details

Dr Stuart Hannabuss
Aberdeen Business School

Email: s.hannabuss@rgu.ac.uk

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