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The Challenges of Managing Resources in a “Just in Time” World

Over the last few years most law libraries have cancelled loose-leaf and periodical subscriptions as a way of dealing with reduced budgets and the ever increasing cost of materials. As a result, libraries are less likely to buy materials “just in case”. In the days of less constrained budgets, this “just in case” model made sense; lawyers tend to need materials urgently and if the library does not already own these materials, getting them from another library can take too much time.

However, the increased number of materials available electronically, along with the ability to do document delivery online, has made shifting from a “just in case” model to a “just in time” model seen enticing. Libraries do not have to buy materials just in case someone needs them. They only have to buy/rent/borrow non-core materials when these materials are requested. An added bonus of buying materials in electronic format instead of print is that it saves library space, frequently at a premium.

That said, the just in time model is not without its flaws. Not all materials are available electronically and it is not always easy to purchase the ones that are.

Traditionally, libraries have used interlibrary loan to obtain materials they did not own. Sarah Sutherland in her recent SLAW article talked about the problems with relying on other institutions to supplement one’s collection. Even if a university library carries a book or journal, licensing restrictions may mean it is prevented from providing materials from electronic resources through ILL. With increasing numbers of university libraries replacing print subscriptions with electronic databases, private law libraries should not be relying on academic libraries for the materials they need. (It will be interesting to see what effect the growing number of Institutional Repositories will have on this problem.)

Another option is to get electronic copies of materials directly from the publisher. For academic articles this is generally straightforward, as these articles are usually available for purchase. The article may be expensive (compared to traditional ILL costs) and there may be usage restrictions (e.g. the article may only be accessible for 24 hours), but it is available. However, getting electronic copies of textbooks can be more challenging. Publishers may not offer the flexibility that a library needs, for example the option to purchase just a chapter of a book, or the price may be prohibitive.

For example one of my lawyers recently needed one chapter of a book, but we could not buy a print copy of the book in time to meet his deadline. The book was on a very specialized topic and as a result was unavailable anywhere in Western Canada. In an ideal situation we could have bought or rented an electronic version of the chapter for a reasonable price. The publisher did not offer the book electronically, so the lack of an electronic option meant the publisher ended up forgoing a sale. It is understandable that publishers are concerned about the financial implications for their print products if they make electronic versions available. However the inability to buy materials electronically results in publishers missing out on revenue and customers unable to access research tools.

Given all these challenges, what should law firm libraries be doing to ensure lawyers can get the resources they need?

Many law firm libraries already informally share resources; library staff directly contact other law firm libraries to borrow books. As law firm libraries generally do not have access to each other’s catalogues, librarians either have to put out a general distress call or make an educated guess as to who might own the needed resource. The downside of these informal arrangements is that libraries can end up in the situation where no one owns the item that they need.

A more formal resource sharing arrangement between law firm libraries has its challenges. Aside from the obvious problem that law firms are in competition with each other, how would such an arrangement practically work? What happens if two lawyers from two different firms need the same item? How would this conflict with the need for confidentiality? How would the libraries make sure that everyone was contributing equally and there were no “free riders”?

A third option that has been suggested in the past is for law firm libraries to combine their efforts and create a centralized library, either to replace law firm libraries or to supplement them. However centralized libraries, such as courthouse libraries, already exist, so why would law firm libraries want to duplicate their efforts? Again the problem arises with how to fairly share resources: what happens if the same print item is needed by two people? There is also the issue of collection development; if only one firm wants an obscure or expensive resource, is it fair for the other members to be subsidizing it?

When a specific resource is too costly or not sufficiently in demand, libraries may purchase the resource through a consortium. For law firm libraries, the question is how receptive would publishers be to this model? Would they be willing to license materials to a consortium of private law libraries?

The challenges associated with obtaining resources from external sources are unlikely to be solved overnight. There is an opportunity for publishers here, as there is a growing market for pay-as-you-go options. In most legal research, there is a balance between cost and convenience so the focus of publishers should be to make accessing those materials both convenient and affordable.

Kim Nayyer, a SLAW contributor and librarian at the University of Victoria, is currently investigating issues with regards to resource sharing in law libraries, and it will be interesting to see her conclusions. If you are a librarian, you may want to respond to a survey on that she is currently carrying out: http://fluidsurveys.com/surveys/kimn/resource-sharing-among-law-libraries/ (note that it closes April 28 which is today).

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