Where Will Old, Expensive, or Unexpected Legal Information Come From When Libraries All Downsize Together?
I am interested by recent discussions I have had with librarians at various law libraries about how they make decisions about what materials to keep, cancel, or discard. Many are looking at the holdings of other libraries and relying on them to provide access to less commonly used materials rather than maintaining them locally. This is understandable, but it is only a viable decision if the lending libraries continue to maintain their collections. Instead, this appears to be done without formal agreements among the libraries about retention of materials, consideration of whether it is within the supplying libraries’ mandates to provide access going forward, or if they are likely to maintain the same level of service over time.
I have experience of a large government library which provided extensive document delivery, and several university libraries chose to discard substantial holdings based on access to its collection and services. Eventually the government cut funding to the library, and difficult decisions had to be made about what was core to the organization as a whole, and one of them was that content aimed at external stakeholders was no longer core to its mandate. The university libraries had seen it as the role of the government library to maintain these collections and services in perpetuity, but there was no formal agreement that this was what it would do, and funding cycles created different priorities.
This situation is reflected on a smaller scale in several conversations I have had with librarians who are experiencing shrinking physical spaces and budgets. In each of these cases, decisions are being made regarding whether materials will be maintained as ongoing current subscriptions, discontinued but kept, or discarded, based on the holdings of other institutions. Private law libraries look to courthouse libraries, courthouse libraries look to university libraries, university libraries look to each other, and everyone looks to the Supreme Court of Canada Library. The problem is that it seems budgetary pressures are being felt at all levels of the chain, and these decisions are being made without consultation.
It used to be that most libraries maintained collections on a “just in case” basis, and, since information was so difficult to acquire, it made sense to operate that way. In times of tighter budgets, higher real estate costs, and easier access to information online, there is more pressure on libraries to maintain only those resources which are regularly used. These forces affect all libraries, but those with primarily practice based collections are particularly so: this includes libraries in law firms, law societies, and many government departments. This is represented by a switch to a “just in time” model of collection development: where materials are obtained as they are needed. However, things can only be obtained in time if they are held somewhere, and usually that means somewhere local.
A selective survey of the existing environment reveals the following: law society libraries have a national resource sharing agreement; however, it doesn’t include interlibrary loans of books or other print materials, and there is no formal agreement relating to what collections any particular library will maintain in perpetuity for the support of the others. Among academic research libraries there is an agreement among the Ontario Council of University Libraries regarding the retention of the last copies of materials, particularly journals. However, it isn’t clear if it has been implemented. It isn’t possible to include mention of all similar agreements among library systems nationally, but most libraries have information about them available on their websites.
During these discussions, we also discussed the role of the Supreme Court of Canada Library, and I have at times been the grateful beneficiary of its generous loan policies. In some ways the SCC Library is filling a role as a source for legal materials that aren’t available elsewhere, like the Library and Archives of Canada did before recent service cuts; however, there is nothing in its mandate that requires acquisition of materials to support external needs. The library has reciprocal agreements with other libraries with the aim to provide service to internal clients and contribute to the legal community nationally, which you can read about here, and it is generally supportive of giving the legal community access.
I would argue that in institutions with the extended timelines of law firms, law societies, government departments, and courts, it is a precarious thing to base decisions on having access to the SCC Library’s collections when there is no explicit mandate to make them available. Government libraries generally are retreating from the provision of access to their collections as a standard service to the public and libraries, for example consider Library and Archives Canada’s cancelation of their interlibrary loan program.
I have been told that in a public library there is, on average, a complete turnover of the collection every five years, but in law libraries the needs are different. One day there may be a real and immediate need to consult a volume from the second edition of Halsbury’s Laws of England that was published in 1932 or read a case from 1753 that was only reported in a footnote, and there will be repercussions for not having it. This is not to say that I think we should be trying to retain all obscure materials, only that decisions be made with the understanding that they will likely not be as easily available in the future.
It is a potential solution for libraries to enter into reciprocal agreements to maintain certain materials. Libraries within individual law firms could agree to maintain particular titles and share access as required. Law society libraries could agree to maintain content relevant to their own jurisdictions, freeing the others to concentrate on local needs. Universities could agree to provide access to each other as required as they discard materials, which are not regularly needed. Agreements could also be made that if the last copy of a title is being discarded it should be kept or offered to the other libraries for archival purposes. Some of these options are easier to achieve than others: for the libraries internal to a law firm to agree to supplement each others’ collections is quite straight forward, but reciprocal agreements across organizations are more difficult.
As an example, implementing a program of retention of last copies seems like it should be simple, but it is complicated when there is not an easy way to find current information about where materials are. The university libraries in Ontario have a union catalogue, but many other groups of libraries do not, and as the holdings in Library and Archives Canada’s AMICUS catalogue are not always maintained, it can be impossible to know when an item is a last copy. It is even more difficult in the case of law firms where what libraries have is considered a competitive advantage, and, short of sending and answering personal queries as a professional courtesy, it is impossible to know what anyone has.
Libraries all seem to be facing space restrictions, which limit the historical holdings they can maintain. They also all seem to have budgetary restraints, which limit what they can purchase. It is tempting to rely on other libraries to fill in the gaps. In the past this has generally been a successful strategy, but as all libraries decrease holdings it becomes a liability, and some materials are expensive, difficult, or impossible to replace if discarded in haste. I have heard anecdotes of libraries being asked to subscribe to titles another libraries have recently cancelled when they are trying to cut their own subscriptions, and without coordination it is unlikely that current networks will continue to be able to meet the needs they effortlessly handled before.
Thank you to Rosalie Fox, Louis Mirando, and Mandy Ostick who kindly answered my questions in the writing of this column.