Developing a Library Collection Development Policy: Monographs

The new library of Osgoode Hall Law School is open, even if not yet quite finished. We’re still waiting for some of the furniture to be delivered and the rare books reading room (Canada Law Book Rare Book Room) is still under construction. I’m crossing my fingers that the missing pieces will be in place for the official opening of the new Ignat Kaneff Building, home of Osgoode Hall Law School, on October 16.

But there’s much more to a good library than well-designed facilities, access to good resources and helpful staff. One of the essential ingredients of any successful library is a collection development policy that has been crafted to address the information needs of the library’s clients while recognizing the constraints of budget and space. A realistic and well-tuned collection development policy is the library’s roadmap not only for building but for maintaining a balanced collection of print and electronic resources that is both useful and used. If one goal of developing the policy is to maximize the library’s collections budget by acquiring the resources that best address the work and research needs of the library’s patrons, an equally important goal is to keep the library from wasting money either on acquiring resources that will not be used or on maintaining resources that are no longer needed. A good collection development policy is always a work in progress, requiring regular fine-tuning to meet the demands of changing environments, resources and demographics; but sometimes it requires a radical overhaul. It’s a big and daunting task, the options and possibilities manifold. In this column, I’ll discuss just one small part of a collection development policy: the monograph.

Monographs are the “secondary sources” of law we’re always recommending to our students as the place to start research. We recommend monographs because, unlike the raw law found in the “primary sources” of law (judicial decisions and legislation), monographic texts contain commentary on and analysis of the law. In this age of huge, aggregated electronic collections of primary sources and journals for law (Lexis, Hein Online, Westlaw, LLMC Digital) which can be found in every library, it is perhaps a large and comprehensive collection of monographic texts that sets one library apart from another as a serious scholarly research collection.

The monograph – or text or treatise, call it what you will – is the one publishing format that has seemed relatively immune from the thrust-and-parry between publishers and libraries of rising prices from on side and cancellations on the other. The word “monograph” comes from the Greek for “written once”; and the defining characteristic of monographs, unlike “serial” publications such as looseleafs, law reports and journals, is that they are published, sold and purchased once instead of serially. (I will leave for another day a discussion of electronic books and publishers’ attempts to “license” monographs.)

I have written before about cancelling serial subscriptions not just to save money but as a rational and realistic response to and recognition of digital formats, open access and the Web. A modern collection development policy must take these new realities into consideration. One of the happy consequences of pursuing these “rational” cancellation policies at Osgoode is that we have been able to more than double the portion of our acquisitions budget that goes to purchasing monographs. Nevertheless, there continue to be serious budgetary considerations in developing an acquisitions policy for monographs.

From a budget perspective, academic libraries generally and law libraries in particular have not had too onerous a time of maintaining their collections of monographs (though the time required to monitor the publishers’ lists and select relevant titles can be onerous indeed). Perhaps because of the important role played by university presses in the production of research monographs, price increases for monographs have been relatively restrained and prices generally have remained manageable. I find myself playing a game with the books and evaluating them on the basis of how many pages there are per dollar of cost. Most texts from university presses and even the commercial publishers still average three, four or even five pages per dollar. Texts with an international or comparative legal angle (and all texts from some publishers) almost always cost more, averaging two or even just one page per dollar of cost. I’m not always sure whether this price differential is a function of the more limited market available to international titles or the publisher’s presumption that any library acquiring these titles is inherently affluent and can afford to pay more.

Of course, there have always been glaring exceptions to the rule of reasonably-priced monographs. Many of our core legal texts from the professional law publishers have been extravagantly priced for many years. A copy of Chitty on Contracts (30th ed), published by Thomson Reuters-Sweet & Maxwell, now costs well in excess of $1,000, despite (or because of?) the huge market for the title. At the same time, however, and from the same publisher, Treitel on the Law of Contract, 13th edition, lists at under $100.

Presumably, if Chitty were published by a Canadian law publisher, it would have been converted to a looseleaf format long ago – effectively a serial publication that you pay for over and over again. However, in an imitation of “looseleaf-like” practice, many professional publishers (Sweet & Maxwell and Westlaw especially) issue regular paperback “supplements” or “pocket parts” to their legal monographs, each often costing well over $100 and issued as frequently as quarterly. Complete new editions of these same works are then published as often as every five years like clockwork, whether necessary or not.

At Osgoode, we buy very few if any of the supplements to these otherwise monographic texts (just as we’ve cancelled most of our looseleaf subscriptions). The supplements consist primarily of references to recent cases and legislative developments, which can be obtained with greater currency by an effective online search or intelligent use of a well-designed online citator. Again because of cost, we also look closely at new editions that are published too frequently and we don’t automatically buy every new edition.

One trend I’ve noticed is more frequent recourse by some publishers to the format known as the “collection of new essays”, each essay by a different author and not always with an introduction by the editor. Sometimes, such works are an important response to a recognized lack of book-length, in-depth scholarship on a specialized or developing topic, and are commissioned by the publisher to fill a gap in the literature. Too often, though, the collected papers resemble orphans from a journal publishing program, quickly assembled into a nonce text, the result somewhat jumbled and of wildly varying quality. I can think of several publishers who turn out such works in alarming numbers. Their value would be increased if they were indexed by the periodicals indexes as single-volume journals; then perhaps I wouldn’t feel obliged to buy them. I’m often reluctant to purchase such publications but am aware, too, that there can be gold among the dross.

In the same vein are the published proceedings of obscure conferences and seminars held at similarly obscure and remote institutions. The editing of these publications is usually minimal, the content questionable and the value negligible. In my opinion, if any of the contributors has anything really worthwhile to say, it will appear (or already has appeared) in a journal article. Our policy is to avoid purchasing such works.

The counterpart to the collection of new essays is the “collection of previously-published articles”. Under the guise of facilitating research, these collections simply repackage and resell old journal articles in subject-specific compilations. These collections are always hugely expensive, doubtless because of the copyright permissions being paid not to authors but to other publishers. Any library with a subscription to Hein Online could take the table of contents from one of these collections and quickly build a hyperlinked list of the articles. At Osgoode, our new collection development policy states specifically that we do not acquire such books.

In a similar vein, there is a trend among more and more publishers to produce more and more casebooks, the generic “cases and materials” texts so popular in law schools. When I was in a law firm library, we refused to buy casebooks for the collection. If students asked for one, we’d remind them that no one ever learned anything from a casebook. In the second decade of the 21st Century, when every law school has access to CanLII, Hein Online, Lexis and Westlaw, every case and journal article can be quickly and easily retrieved online. There is no excuse for printed casebooks and professors should abstain from tendering them to commercial publishers. Neither libraries nor student should be obliged to buy them. I would like to think that the future for casebooks will resemble the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI)’s eLangdell. (If you go their website, take a look at the US federal rules ebooks, developed by CALI in association with LII (Legal Information Institute) at Cornell Law School.

At Osgoode, we’ve just completed the once-in-a-lifetime task of designing and building what initial reports indicate is a successful new library: Now we’re rebuilding our collection development policy to build on that success. I am convinced that, as more libraries cancel more subscriptions and access to online services levels the playing field among law school library collections, it is the possession of a large retrospective collection and a commitment to developing and maintaining a large monographs collection that will define the great research libraries. This is our desire at Osgoode, but we can’t buy everything. While we insist on buying everything published in Canada, we will be more selective with other jurisdictions (with an emphasis on Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US). We will buy comprehensively in some subject areas that support specific curricula and research at the School and to develop defined centres of excellence but will be more selective in others. And with the format exceptions listed above, we will buy most publications from some publishers (Ashgate, Cambridge, Edward Elgar, Hart, Martinus Nijhoff, Oxford) but be more selective with others.

And we will continue to work on a policy for electronic books and government documents.

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  1. Louis, thanks for this excellent outline of your thoughts as Osgoode embarks on its new phase. Very interesting comments about legal publishing and publications. Your remarks about law firm library collection decisions compared with those in a law school library decisions, I believe, apt.