Time to consolidate law school law libraries?

I vividly remember my first class on legal research – in a time before there was a usable internet.  The instructors wheeled in a book cart overloaded with numerous books that we would need to use in future legal research projects, including: case reporters from the many different court systems; digests, statute books; codes; pocket parts; legal encyclopedias; examples of loose-leaf materials;  and so on.  At that point it seemed to me that perhaps becoming a lawyer was beyond me.  Fortunately, I was soon an expert after a summer clerkship at a law firm that was predominantly spent doing book research in a nearby state law library.

Back then, which was not so long ago, a law library was an essential tool for legal research.  Perhaps that is not the case anymore – especially for those law libraries that do not employ true law librarians (who can be an incredibly useful part of a research strategy – but who, especially outside the United States where ABA rules require them, are increasingly scarce or even non-existent in law school law libraries).

While I do not agree completely with the recent title of an interesting blog post on electronic research (“Libraries are for Hobos: New Resources for Legal Research“), I  suspect that if there were no comfortable study places in our law school libraries, those libraries would be empty with hardly any foot traffic.  Thus, I have for a while felt that it is time to consider changing the relationship between law schools and their law libraries.

Just as we would think it highly inefficient for each law school to maintain its own text searchable legal databases (like Westlaw), so too it is now inefficient for law schools to maintain their own law libraries.  Instead, the law schools within a city or region should  consolidate their collections together, in the process reducing unnecessary duplication.  That consolidated collection could be stored in a suitable warehouse.  The consolidated library books could then be electronically identified and ordered as needed by students or academics from participating law schools and then brought to a central collection point in their law school, perhaps such distributions taking place one or more times each day.  Students and academic staff could electronically search and browse the warehouse bookshelves, even delving into the table of contents of specific books (that technology already exists and is used in some libraries).

Current library space within law schools could then be more efficiently reconfigured to become dedicated study space or additional classroom space.  Perhaps an office for a resident law librarian or research specialist could still be maintained within each law school (though I suspect they would be hardly used given how people today conduct their research). A consolidated library would have greater purchasing power, holding a larger more varied collection. It could employ true law librarians to manage the collection policies and strategies. It could be funded by equitable arrangements, such as an annual fee per student/academic within each law school or per average use for each law school. Local law firms and government offices  could even participate, further helping to defray costs and making their own research more efficient.

True, those that like to stroll library aisles would be unhappy, but I suspect that enjoyable research technique is increasingly rare today and would be offset by the benefits of a consolidated law library: with access to a larger collection;  resource savings for the law school that could be directed towards research support; the chance to hold more classes within a law building with library space converted to classrooms; and so on.

Such a change would be a radical departure from how things are and have been, but the reality is that students and younger academics increasingly do their research electronically, which does not require them to physically enter a law school’s library.  Of course, consolidating law school libraries would need vision and cooperation from law schools, but after the first few regions entered into such a beneficial arrangement I am confident it would be replicated in those jurisdictions not subject to antiquated and restrictive rules (such as those imposed by the ABA on American law schools).

Colin B. Picker

 

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5 thoughts on “Time to consolidate law school law libraries?

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  1. It is true that physical collections (print and microforms) could be consolidated
    in cities where there are several law schools without creating substantial disruption. There are some ready-reference and high demand materials that would still need to be kept at each school. However, I completely disagree about the need for and the number of librarians needed at each institution. Librarians do much more than maintain a collection, although that in itself is a valuable skill. We assist with research. Despite the availability of many resources on the Internet, many more are still available only in specialized services and today’s law students, for the most part, need training in research literacy; i.e., determining validity and reliability of the resources that they find online. At enlightened institutions, law librarians provide both legal research training and other skills training, such as in the use of technology.

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    1. I agree that to the extent a law library provides trained law librarians they do provide essential and critical support for students and academics. I am a big fan of true law librarians.

      But keeping law librarians in the law building does not mean one needs to keep the library there as well. In any event, very often we see law libraries in law schools (especially those outside the United States) where there are simply no true law librarians – those with both a law degree/experience and with a library science degree/experience. In those cases there is little that I can see that can be provided to students and academics beyond what the students and academics should already know. Also, research training is very often provided outside the library with little to no involvement with the library personnel, though I agree that true law librarians should probably be involved with that training. They will have skills and knowledge not found among the usual law research instructor.

      Finally, as to “ready reference and high demand materials” that should be kept – those materials should be online if they are really that much in demand. Also, if they are only available in paper I suspect the search abilities are limited (in the absence of the old digest and other paper research tools we used to employ and about which today’s students and young academics have no clue).

      Anyway, politically the sort of consolidation I proposed probably has little chance of success. Law schools and their universities are too competitive to see that everyone would win under this proposal.

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  2. Law libraries have collaborated in many different ways through the years. NELLCO Law Library Consortium was developed in the early 80s by law libraries as a vehicle for robust collaborations. In 2013, NELLCO and the Legal Information Preservation Alliance launched PALMPrint, a project for collecting and housing print legal materials similar to your vision. Please visit http://www.nellco.org/?page=palmprint to learn more about the effort, view a list of the over 60 participating law libraries, and find links to additional resources.

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    1. I like doing that as well, but the truth is that I almost never get the chance to do so. I think the reality is that while many of us would like to continue to use law school libraries in the traditional manner, we either rarely do or some other more efficient equivalent can be found, e.g. a nice staff reading room may work better than hunting for a seat in the overcrowded study space that libraries have become. Indeed, the books actually get in the way of what the student’s actually want, which is more study space and not more or any books!

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