Media Types for Law Libraries

Selecting the correct software for your computerized law library is a critical part of its success. The best choice varies on your situation. Software has two components: the actual medium used and the program itself. Here are the choices, by medium:


Most libraries are moving away from books, but it is useful to consider the strengths of books and try to preserve those strengths through the transition. Every literate person knows how to read a book, unlike computer literacy, which is less common. A book experiences no ‘downtime’ such as what would happen in the event of a computer crash. A book is a less formidable weapon in the hands of an inmate than a CD disc sharpened on its edge. Books cannot facilitate electronic escape.

But, books are bulky, expensive, and hard to search. Replacing damaged books is expensive. If one book is in use, another cannot use it. And, law book publishers have hinted that their books will not be produced into the indefinite future


Most prison law libraries that have converted are receiving their content via CD-ROM. Each CD has a capacity of over a million pages, the equivalent of several shelves of books. All of the major legal content providers also provide CDs. The format is proven, standard, and has an easy installation.

But, CD capacity shows its limitations when dealing with large bodies of law, taking up a dozen or more CDs. Updating CDs without proper equipment such as an Academy CD/DVD Server is daunting. Product training is advisable.


DVD discs are familiar as a delivery mechanism for movies and multimedia computer content such as games. Legal DVD-ROMs are simply supersized CDs, able to deliver the content of 7 CDs in a single disc. Updating your library with current law on DVD is simpler than updating with CDs, just because there are fewer discs involved. One DVD provider even customizes a limited production disc that gives a prison the exact content necessary to comply with the law in each particular state.

DVDs, like CDs make incorporating updates difficult without proper equipment. DVDs also are limited in the fact that not all legal publishers offer them.

Hard Drives

Familiar fixtures in personal computers, new portable hard drives attach more easily to PCs via their Universal Serial Bus or Firewire port. Publishers use hard drives two different ways. One uses a portable external drive to transfer its initial database to an internal drive in a Server, with subsequent updates coming by CD-ROM. Another uses the hard drive connected continuously, as the source of all current data, which is searched by the Server. This latter method allows almost instantaneous updating, with no CDs or DVDs.

Hard Drives are an unproven publishing medium, however. During the use of a subscription, hard drives must be recirculated. One drive replaces another and is returned to the publisher. Significant breakage is likely after several shipments and returns, since hard drives have delicate internal mechanisms. The cost of drives, transport, breakage and downtime from drive failure detract from the convenience benefits of this media.


All legal publishers now offer online access to their legal content. Some even offer online products tailored for prisons. This method minimizes onsite hardware, and eliminates update work. Online is the most popular and fastest growing legal information access method outside of prisons: whether by government, private practice, corporate, and other legal information users.

Real or imagined electronic escape risk continues to make this option unattractive for the majority of prisons. Ill-conceived programs without adequate firewalls have had security breaches, discrediting the method, deserved or not. Staff training and vigilance in maintaining system password secrecy is key, as is limiting logon attempts and frequent expiration of passwords. While a well-designed system could achieve a satisfactory security level, convincing reluctant managerial and legal staff of online’s safety has often failed.


Many different criteria and priorities have resulted in several different types of products to suit different needs. As technology progresses, the best choice today may be different than yesterday. Best choices result from good research that considers all offerings and their tradeoffs. Security, cost, and convenience certainly matter to most buyers.