The Rock, the Library, and the Hard Place | Legal Tech Monitor

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The Rock, the Library, and the Hard Place | Legal Tech Monitor

There are some maxims that I live by when it comes to libraries. One of them is this: a library is not a free-standing, self-sufficient entity. It’s operations are fixed by the funds made available to it and it is a rare library that can fund itself. That includes law libraries. Unfortunately, as can be seen with the New Zealand National Library, the library can end up between a rock and a hard place when it runs into the limitations of its funding and the expectations of its researchers.

If you haven’t read about the collection management changes New Zealand’s library is making, it makes a good story. Once you’ve read the researchers’ perspectives – “I literally weep” – then head over to the library’s page where it does a good job of explaining how they are reorienting the collection.

The basic issue seems to be that the library:

  • has limited space and financial resources for collection management and preservation
  • the library is a national library whose holdings currently range far beyond national objects
  • the library has decided to use its fixed resources – funding and space – to focus on its core mandate of New Zealand-oriented objects
  • the people who use the collection are upset at the re-focus and, perhaps more importantly, the fate of the collection that no longer fits into the core mandate.

This is common at pretty much any library when you face collection management decisions. The courthouse law library I led in Ohio had a particularly good collection of books about witchcraft and the arcane. Trust me, not a lot of movement on the shelf for those items. We ended up finding a new home for them.

The issue raises a variety of challenges for a library director. As the decision-maker, you’re between your researchers and your funders. Those perspectives don’t always mesh.

The Funder

There is a connection issue with law library funders. The further away the library is from decision-makers who use law libraries, the greater the challenge for them to understand operational impacts. If the local bar has a courthouse law library board, the bar can at least picture what the impact of a 10% budget cut might be: a database disappears, or certain print texts are no longer updated.

Note: they can picture it. Some lawyers also think they know how to run a law library based on their legal research semester in law school. This overamplification of their own knowledge – and underappreciation of the librarians – can cause other problems.

Push the decision-making higher or in a different direction – to a chief financial officer in a municipality or to publicly elected county commissioners – and you may have people making financial decisions who have no concept of what a law library does. At some level, that’s understandable. A government budget is a large and complex beast.

This is a recurring conversation. You can’t assume anyone understands the law library operations domain. I had this discussion with new finance staff in our organization this year. We discussed the looseleaf and its impact on law library budgets, why so many products are single-source, why there is so little negotiating leverage since law library content isn’t widget-ized.

The municipality may be supporting a law library, a public library, and other information resources. All of those will be competing with more fundamental government tasks: justice, housing, safety, education. So proximity can be a blessing and a curse: it will impact oversight and micro-management (for example, when lawyers advocate for a pet text title or database).

I’m always a little surprised when I see a story like the one about New Zealand. Whatever the rationale – and whether the library or the researcher agrees with it – funding decisions have been made by the funder. The library is not always able to have in impact on those choices, whether they agree with them or not.

Another example that popped up since I started writing this post. A tax rollback in Nashville would leave the main branch and two large branches, out of 21 current branches.

Resources have been allocated. Now it’s time for the library to cut its clothes to suit its cloth. And the researchers may not like the final outfit.

The Researcher

The researcher is often the originator of the funding. It is the law student, the local taxpayer, the fee generator in a firm. In all those cases, they are contributing financially to a funder who then disburses funds to the library. That creates expectations about what they will receive in return. Everyone wants their money’s worth. At least when it comes to libraries, those expectations can be wildly out of line with what their contribution actually contributes.

It’s like when people complain about paying property tax and also about why their public library is closed on Mondays or doesn’t carry the latest novels. People may not see the connection. We see it in law libraries when our researchers pay an amount but less of that aggregate flows back to the library. Funders loathe to raise tuition or taxes or licensing fees may be reducing library funding.

But everything has a cost. And the longer you keep staff, the bigger you grow your collection, the longer you maintain a database license, that cost is going to grow. You then have two options:

  • raise the funding
  • cut your costs

It’s not rocket science. But the funder isn’t the one answering to the researcher paying the freight. The library is in the middle, and the challenge for the library director is to manage those misaligned expectations.

This is not to suggest that the researcher doesn’t have valid expectations. In the New Zealand situation, it sounds like the concern was about where the excess collection was going. It wasn’t entirely about whether it belonged in the library or not.

Some people are concerned that they can’t access information in their preferred format. My preference is to always try to accomodate format choice but it’s not always achievable. As the New Zealand library showed, most of the excess collection isn’t digital. This means print format or nothing, short of expending additional resources. Print means shelf space, and each item kept means some other item is excluded.

The Library

The law library director is hired and paid to make the hard decisions. A significant collection development refocus can be a very hard decision. But it’s a necessary one. One reason to have your collection development policy is to provide your researchers and your funder with transparency around your collection choices.

If you are going to alter that, you should be just as transparent about those changes. You may be able to take on input from researchers and funder. Or you may just be given a set of resources that don’t provide for a lot of flexibility. Seeking input in that situation may be less helpful since you may not be able to incorporate it and create a new, different perception issue of not listening.

I have often wondered if the biggest factor surrounding a collection management decision isn’t the attachment to the physical format. It is not uncommon to read stories about libraries pulping old collections or having them shredded. The outrage comes around what is happening to that old collection.

One thing that struck me about the New Zealand collection was the type of content people were upset about. A 1912 edition of “Sense and Sensibility”? Graham Greene first editions? These are old books, sure, but worth keeping?

It reminded me of discussions I’ve had with other law librarians about the difference between old dirty books and rare law books. Just because it’s old doesn’t make it valuable. Case in point: law reporters. Is it the book printed in 1850 that’s valuable, or is it the content (case law captured elsewhere now) that’s valuable?

The challenge with defending collection decisions is that even if you have a rare item, it may not fit in your collection. A researcher might argue: what’s it going to hurt to keep that 1912 Jane Austen if it’s the only one left? Nothing: except that it isn’t what the collection is supposed to contain. Better to send it to one of the places that already collects and maintains Jane Austen content, like the libraries digitally preserving her manuscripts.

It is hard to get rid of old – not rare – books. I field a dozen or so emails a year from a dead lawyer’s family wanting to find a new home for law reporters and out of date texts. No thank you.

I had to laugh at this tweet that appeared in my timeline while I was writing this post:

“Big News: A retiring doctor asked if I wanted his old journals and I told him NO instead of saying yes and then bringing them to the recycling center on my own time. – @shinyinfo”

If a library is already short of resources, there may not be any resources available for the many valid alternatives to shredding excess objects. A lack of understanding of related issues may mean researchers and funders don’t understand why you don’t adopt them. I’m sure that, money, staff time, and copyright allowing, we’d all want to:

  • digitize books so that they can remain accessible to our researchers
  • search for libraries that have matching collections AND need your items AND that can afford to absorb your excess collection
  • spend time selling the truly rare or desirable items (some libraries use eBay and other sites) or identifying a reseller to take care of that for you

The Ohio courthouse law library I led had a collection of criminal law materials that were unused by our researchers but still had value. We sent them to HeinOnline, who digitized them and sent us back facsimile volumes. It allowed us to keep a print copy while we could but it also meant that there was a digital edition available to us (and everyone).

The last copy issue is real but it isn’t necessarily solved by a library holding on to everything it has collected. It can be hard to balance the expectations – and perceptions, and physical attachment – that researchers and funders have about your collection. The challenge is to continue to manage your excess collection until it has found its next home as best you can with the resources you have available.