The Tension Between Library Collections and Other Work in Law Libraries

Author:Sarah Sutherland
Date:March 29, 2016

There has been an interesting trend in law firms recently of gradually reducing staff in libraries, but adding information specialist positions with various job titles to business development groups. It seems like a missed opportunity for firm libraries to redefine their roles, and for library staff to explore interesting work that increases the return on investment of the library budget. Wondering why this is happening in this way, I started to think about what work takes the majority of library staff time in a firm. It seems that the likely target is the commitment to maintaining print collections, which still take up so much of law libraries’ resources.

Over the last several years, corporate libraries in many industries have been closed as print resources become less important to employees’ daily tasks, office space has become more expensive, and professional staff in many fields are expected to do many things for themselves that they used to have done for them. This has been less prevalent in law firms than in other sectors, though law libraries have also been pressured for space and budgets. Partly this is because the opportunity costs of having lawyers do unbillable tasks for themselves are high and partly because the cost of the risks associated with incomplete research are higher still.

The reasons for this include a common preference for print information among lawyers, a lag on the part of legal publishers in getting materials online in a usable formats, among others. Which is not to say all legal publishers haven’t made their content conveniently available online, rather that one can’t significantly reduce the size of a collection of required print resources unless a critical mass of materials needed are available this way. The relative slowness of technology adoption and increase in publishers’ walled gardens have also resulted in a situation where applications like citation managers haven’t been adopted as successfully as they have been in other fields. This is starting to change with applications like Lexhub and the legal extension of Zotero.

There has also been a resistance on the part of publishers of subscription services to forego the revenue streams that labour intensive services like looseleaf services provide, and on the part of lawyers who don’t want to assume the perceived risks associated with not having the most up to date resource possible. All of this combines to create a situation where collection maintenance takes...

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