Death of the Casebook?


Predictions about the death of the book have so far been premature and it’s not hard to see why. Books are a very nice technology. Portable, durable, easy-to-read, stable – people like books, and they aren’t going away any time soon.

But what about casebooks? They’re heavy, inconvenient, not terribly portable – and no one really has warm fuzzy feelings about curling up with the latest edition of Gunther. (Co-Blogger Nate may be an exception). Can we safely make a prediction about the death (or at least transformation) of the casebook?

I can see a number of advantages to a purely electronic casebook: (1) weight, or lack thereof (bits are light); (2) ease of updating (no more supplements); (3) customizability (no need to buy all those extra chapters); (4) ability for students to cut and paste into outlines; (5) multimedia, etc.

I can also see several disadvantages: (1) lack of access to computers; (2) dislike of reading material on a computer screen; (3) lack of portability. But it seems to me that two of these disadvantages are becoming less significant as (1) computers become ubiquitous in law school; and (2) people seem increasingly comfortable reading material off of computer screens.

So, is anyone ready to predict the death of the casebook? Are we stuck with casebooks? Or is there some interesting hybrid we should be looking forward to? (Note this is not a purely disinterested question, as I’m currently working on a casebook).

You may also like...

12 Responses

  1. Great post and excellent question. As a casebook author, I have ambivalent feelings on the issue. On the one hand, I partially feel that writing a casebook is a form of indentured servitude. You toil at the book for way too much of your time, only to get a small percentage for a royalty in return which must be split between you and your co-authors. And it never ends — a casebook needs updates, new editions. It probably works out to about 2 cents per hour.

    Although I get little in return, the book sells for an astronomical amount, and I feel bad that students must take out a second mortgage just to buy a casebook. And then there are publisher demands to deal with, such as page limits and other things. Many a time I thought: Why not just create an electronic casebook? I could charge half the price that my publisher charges and collect 100% of the proceeds. I win, my students win.

    But then I think: But I’d have to devise a system to prevent one student from just giving out the electronic file to others for free. I also wouldn’t have the nice physical copy of the book on my bookshelf. An electronic book doesn’t seem like a real book. I love holding my book in my hands, not having a bunch of electrons to look at on the screen. Would people still respect the work as a book? Or would it just be viewed as little more than my other electronic creations (e.g., blog posts)? There’s nothing like a book with your name on it sitting on the shelf.

    So I’m torn. I see a future where it will be easy for anybody to create an electronic casebook. Some kind of arrangement must be made with instructors to ensure that everybody in the class purchases it. But assuming such an arrangement can be made, I see this as the future. And perhaps the bound casebooks will slowly disappear. Part of me will be excited at this development, as it will (hopefully) make books cheaper and authors like me richer. But I’ll also be very sad.

  2. Matt Bodie says:

    I’ve written an article on the potential for open-source casebooks. One possible alternative to the traditional casebook is an online database where profs could post edited cases, statutes, regulations, law reviews, and commentary. Individual profs could then compile their own “casebooks” and make them available to students. There are a lot of ways of doing this, and there are real barriers: intellectual property rights, the need for a critical mass of participation, and the need for a core of profs to manage the site. But I think it could happen, and the benefits — national collaboration combined with individually-tailored course materials — would be tremendous.

    The article is forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Education. Here’s the SSRN link:

  3. Matt — Sounds a bit like a wiki casebook, although limited to law professors. Something Kaimi might think about.

  4. Mike says:

    Here’s one. It’s pretty good. Online federalism casebook.

  5. Bruce says:

    I may be atypical, but I care a lot about weight. And textbooks are really, really, really heavy. The main thing it has going for it is that it is far more convenient to have a hard copy that is all bound together, than piecemeal printouts from an online or electronic casebook (and reading online is not an option, at least not for me — I need to make annotations). If it wasn’t for that, I’d just edit a bunch of cases myself, throw them on a website, and teach my class using that. Or use an online casebook.

  6. Matt Bodie says:

    I think there are a lot of different models. One could pitch a wiki-casebook as one casebook that a bunch of people are working on. But then everyone would have to agree, at some level, on what was included. I see the open-source casebook as more of a database with a bunch of different materials to choose from. Some folks could then use those materials to make a wiki-text, but individual profs could add or subtract to their personal “casebook” as they like.

  7. future of the casebook

    Joe Liu asks whether casebooks will die and be replaced by a purely electronic casebook, and in the comments, Matt Bodie refers to an article he wrote on the topic — the article is forthcoming in the Journal of Legal Education and is available o…

  8. Mike Madison says:

    What do you mean by casebook? In other words: At least part of the answer to the post is that it depends on some things. One variable is the style of the book (cases and comments? problems?). Another is the character of the authority that the book is supposed to have (is this supposed to serve as a reference work?). A third is the subject matter of the book (established discipline? emerging discipline? interdisciplinary?). A fourth is whether we’re thinking about this as teachers/users, as students/users, as authors, as publishers, and whether we’re thinking in terms of current semester dynamics, or longer-term dynamics.

    My tentative conclusion is that “casebooks” as we’ve known them for decades won’t disappear, but publishers, authors, teachers, and students increasingly will blend dead-tree content with manipulable online content.

  9. eric says:

    at the very least, all casebooks should include access to the full text in some easy-to-use electronic format with hyperlinks. Casebooks are ridiculously expensive, and if publishers and teachers wanted to truly value-add to the books they’d give us law students electronic copies so that if we didnt feel like hauling 3 books around we could read an assignment here or there on the computer. More importantly, electronic copies would be fully searchable, making it much easier to find that tidbit of information you vaguely remember. As our world becomes Google-ized, I find that if I can’t search material it becomes less useful to me.

    While there is a concern about piracy, by giving away an electronic copy with the price of a physical book you could lessen the piracy issue (password protect the electronic copy, or require a key printed in the actual textbook or something). Plus I doubt that most students, at least these days, would forgo the physical book for a purely electronic copy. Highlighting, writing notes in the margins etc., are still useful, and paper is still easier to read off. but I’ve seen plenty of students chop apart their casebook just so it’s portable. Give students the best of both worlds–it sure would make our lives better.

  10. Harriet Miers' Law Partner says:

    If they woul djust print the casebooks in paperback, that would go aways towards cutting the cost. Easier to recycle too.

  11. Open Casebooks, Part 839

    For those who have followed the many recent posts in many places (e.g., Joe Liu at Co-Op here, Paul Horwitz at PrawfsBlawg here, Matt Bodie’s forthcoming excellent article here, and madisonian’s own Brett Frischmann here) about the “…

  12. John Cowan says:

    A standard approach to access control is to ask “What is the Ith word on the Jth line of the Kth page?” (where I, J, and K vary each time you need a fresh access key). That pretty much requires physical access to a copy of the book.

    Paperback printing technology has its limits: a large book I use a lot had to switch from a paperback 2nd edition to a hardback 4th edition (I never got the 3rd ed) because it was getting too fat and pages were falling out. Monsters pretty much have to be sewn in signatures to function at all, and the hard cover protects the book from flexing and potentially tearing under its own weight.