With the decline in law school enrollment, law libraries are facing increased pressure to cancel print and repurpose space. Rick Bales, Dean of Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law, posted a picture on the Law Deans Blog showing anecdotal evidence of a law library’s mass cancellation of print. Dean Bales noted that “[l]ibraries are going digital, and budget pressures make it difficult to justify maintaining print publications. Most law firm and county libraries have long since cancelled their print subscriptions, driving up the publication costs for the few remaining (mostly law school) buyers.” Rick Bales, Law Library Sign of the Times, Law Deans on Legal Education Blog (Feb. 16, 2015).
It’s true that libraries can discard a lot of print material that is now duplicated on the various electronic databases. For example, law libraries are in “The Shed West Era” where we can reasonably rely on WestlawNext rather than the costly print material. There are pitfalls associated with relying on proprietary databases, but this is the direction in which many are moving.
Dean Bales goes on to say, “Shelves at many law libraries already are tagged with a note indicating that the shelved material is no longer kept up-to-date. Rows of discontinued publications already look antiquated; it’s only a matter of time (and a reversal in the decline in law school admissions) before libraries are pressured to discard the paper and repurpose the space.” Id. Assuming this is true, the pressure on libraries must be tempered with the understanding that a substantial amount of material is still only available in print. We want law schools to be a place of academic rigor and exploration, which requires having access to this material.
While the pressure on academic law libraries will be challenging, it may be just what libraries need to innovate and cement the value of the law library in our public’s perception. In an article titled, Are libraries sustainable in a world of free, networked, digital information?, Lluís Anglada, the Director of the Department of Libraries, Information and Documentation of the Consortium of University Services of Catalonia discusses library sustainability and public perception. Anglada notes:
Libraries are sustained by people through institutions and society in general because they believe, feel, intuit or think that libraries are important to them, because they have a positive perception of them…. We believe that society (still) needs the functions performed by libraries (and librarians), but does this make them immediately sustainable? The answer is no. And it will remain so unless we can soon establish a new stereotype of ‘library’ in people’s minds, one that is not based on the physicality of the buildings or books, but focuses on the role of support and assistance in the difficult process of using information and transforming it into knowledge. The creation of perceptions of a library and librarian that are associated with assistance regarding information is a contribution that has not yet been made.
Lluís Anglada, Are libraries sustainable in a world of free, networked, digital information?, 23(6) El profesional de la información 603 (November-December 2014).
Like all libraries, law libraries must work to change perception. Part of this change in perception that must take place is for the law librarian to showcase their evolution. This evolution will require, in part, the ability to share electronic resources more effectively. Libraries currently do a great job of sharing print, but we need to go a step further and try to configure a system for electronic resource sharing. Law libraries may also need to seriously consider providing new services to stay relevant.
There’s no doubt that librarians will innovate in the face of challenge, but it’s also important for administrators to understand that there should not be a total focus on monetary return on investment to determine if law libraries are still needed. The library is a huge expenditure for a law school, and it’s a tempting place to tighten the purse strings without looking at the intrinsic value of the law library and law librarians.