Collection Development: Just in Time & Just in Case

by Jamie Baker

The way law librarians curate collections is changing. With shrinking budgets, many of us are moving from “just in case” collection development (CD) practices to “just in time” practices.

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Photo by Jamie Baker

“Just in case” is generally seen as the more traditional collection development practice. Law librarians peruse new and notable books to add to their collections based on perceived patron needs. For example, we might use Hein Greenslips or lists from various vendors like Yankee Book Peddler (YBP) Global Online Bibliographic Information (GOBI) to peruse new legal titles. When we review these lists, law librarians try to anticipate patron needs and any holes in their collections to purchase books that will be valuable to the collection. With “just in case,” librarians can see a potential need for a book, but it doesn’t guarantee that the book will ever actually be used.

This is where “just in time” collection development comes in. “Just in time” CD is generally seen as patron-driven acquisitions based on a known need. For example, law librarians might review interlibrary loan stats to determine if the library should own a book that is frequently requested. Or we might have agreements with ebook lenders that allow for automatic purchase of an ebook after so many checkouts.

More recently, it seems that libraries have become bigger proponents of “just in time” CD:

Libraries have long encouraged academic researchers to be involved in the collection development process. Faculty and students can submit purchase requests via email or online forms; even so, most purchasing is of the “just in case” variety. With collection budgets static or shrinking, “just in time” purchasing offers one way to increase the immediate, and potentially long-term, value of collection purchases.

Uta Hussong-Christian & Kerri Georgen-Doll, Buy Request: Just in Time v. Just in Case at OSU Libraries, Presentation at the 2010 Acquisitions Institute (May 17, 2010).

The shift in CD practices from “just in case” to “just in time” has really taken hold in the last five years or so as libraries have moved away from traditional print material to rely on more electronic resources. There are even law library CD policies that use the “just in time” language to describe purchases. See Collection Development Policy, Charles B. Sears Law Library, State University of New York at Buffalo, August 2015; Collection Development Policy, University of Michigan Law Library, August 2014.

But these two types of CD are not mutually exclusive, and we have to be careful not to concede to budget pressures and move solely to “just in time” practices and end up barely curating a law library’s collection beyond what is required by the ABA core collection. “Just in time” is budget friendly, to be sure. Libraries that use this type of purchasing do so to make sure that patrons have access to exactly what they need when they need it. However, there is a serendipitous quality to “just in case” CD that cannot be overstated.

Part of the beauty of “just in case” CD is that librarians who know the institution and know their collections can anticipate the types of materials that their patrons will need. The librarians consider current research topics by faculty or popular seminar course paper topics by students, for example. After the librarian anticipates the institutional need, the patrons are then free to browse the shelves (if print) to find a book that they didn’t know existed. This works so long as the patrons are visiting the stacks and actively browsing the books and making valuable connections with the information.

While doing stack maintenance recently at my library, I was reminded of the value of browsing the stacks. During shelf reading for call number order and dressing the books, I got to know our collection better. This was one of the things that my mentor always suggested – walk the stacks to become more familiar with the library’s contents. Browsing the stacks has a way of connecting people to information in a way that viewing information electronically does not. In the stacks, patrons can read titles and consider subject headings, they can pull books from shelves and peruse tables of contents, connecting to information in a new way.

Ultimately, I was reminded that law librarians should not curate collections down to so little print that the value of spending time in the stacks is whittled to nothing. We don’t want to rely so heavily on “just in time” CD practices that we forego the serendipitous connections of “just in case” when “just in case” is premised on the needs of the institution.

About Jamie Baker

Jamie Baker is the Associate Dean & Director of the Law Library at Texas Tech University School of Law. She teaches Intro to the Study of Law, Civil Trial Research, & Academic Legal Writing, as well as sessions in the Legal Practice program and Excellence in Legal Research program. She blogs at
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