How do you solve a problem with UELMA?

UELMA is the newest acronym gov docs librarians should learn to love. It stands for Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act, and it was passed by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws (NCCUSL) at their annual meeting in Vail, Colorado, in July 2011. Keith Ann Stiverson, Library Director at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, served as the official observer for the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) at meetings of the NCCUSL drafting committee. I interviewed her for a brief article about UELMA for Chicago-Kent’s student paper, The Commentator. It appeared in the December issue, and is reprinted below with their kind permission. For more, see the description on the NCCUSL website, and this great summary by Barbara Bintliff.

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UELMA: Coming to a State Near You? *
by Kevin McClure, Research Librarian

Keith Ann Stiverson, our Library Director at Chicago-Kent, along with colleagues from the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), has been working hard on the development of the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (UELMA). UELMA recently won approval from the Uniform Law Commission. I chatted with her to find out why she thinks that’s a good thing.

You’ve been working on something called UELMA. What is it, and why should a law student care?

We should all care, because state governments aren’t doing enough to ensure that the legal materials they’re putting up on the Internet are trustworthy and secure. Like legal research generally, the publication of official, primary source material is moving from print to online. UELMA tells states that if they want to put it online and call it official, then they need to do three things.

First, they need to authenticate it. That means that when you view a document online, you get a seal or some other certification that says it’s the genuine article: then you’ll know it hasn’t been tampered with, it’s accurate, and it’s the authoritative and unaltered version. That’s assurance that you need and that you’re really entitled to if you’re going to court, or citing something in an article or paper.

Second, they need to preserve it. We’ve found again and again that states don’t have preservation standards or policies in place for the legal materials they publish online. Preservation means several things. It means having backups in place so that material is secure from a natural disaster or some other failure, and it means the material needs to be in a usable format, so states will need to have it ready to migrate to new formats from time to time. And one very important piece of the preservation puzzle for legal materials is version control, which means that as materials are amended or superseded, we need to preserve the older versions, because so often, legal research isn’t about finding what the law says now, it’s about finding what the law said at a certain point in the past.

The third requirement is that states need to ensure permanent public access to the material. You can think of this as the open government provision of UELMA. In a democracy, citizens deserve and require access to the documents of our government, and legal material is central to that. UELMA doesn’t prescribe one specific way to do that; it gives states the leeway to set their own requirements, so long as they provide public access that is reasonable and permanent.

But I can look at a statute or a state code online and tell whether it’s on a state government website. Isn’t that authentic enough?

It might be good enough for most purposes, most of the time. But what we in AALL have been emphasizing for years is that when it comes to primary legal resources, any form of publication that leaves their authority open to doubt is a failure. We surveyed all fifty states and found all sorts of troubling practices – states where it was hard to tell whether the online version was official or not, states where it appeared that the online wasn’t “as official” as the print, just about everything you can imagine except what we need, which is the same level of certainty online that we’ve had with print. These are the laws we live by. Being “good enough most of the time” doesn’t cut it.

So we have a uniform law, but it isn’t actually a real law anywhere yet?

Right. We worked with the Uniform Law Commission to draft language that was flexible enough to be workable anywhere. Now we’re taking UELMA to eight key states** where we think we have the best chance to get it passed, to create some momentum.

Is Illinois on that list?

No, it’s not! These issues just aren’t on anyone’s radar yet in Springfield. But with a few key victories elsewhere, we hope to blaze a trail that will begin to develop some common practices nationwide and encourage other states to get onboard.

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* I tried so hard to think of a better title. Nothing.
** The eight states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee, (Oxford comma!) and Wisconsin.

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