Leave the U of S Law Library Alone

The University of Saskatchewan College of Law’s library, we have recently learned, is to be “reconfigured”. We have no idea, at the moment, what this re-configuration will entail. We can be reasonably confident that no one intends to burn down the library. But it seems over-optimistic to call it “safe” either.

Here is what we (sort of) know. There is talk of moving some (many? most?) of the books either to the Murray Library or to off-campus storage facilities. Materials moved to those facilities would be available within 48 hours. Much of the space in the library would be turned into classrooms or study facilities. We have been told that faculty and students will continue to have “access to core legal resources of high demand material on site”. Otherwise, we will be left with electronic resources.

This is not an acceptable situation.

Legal academics, research assistants, and students frequently need legal materials outside of regular working hours. Universities, the media, and the public at large want legal academics to weigh in on matters of public concern – to be “engaged scholars”. That means expressing opinions on legal issues that unexpectedly arise and that require an urgent response.

Obviously, we don’t know what materials we will urgently need until we need them. Those materials are often not what could be described as “high demand”. They may pertain to issues – like, say, the history of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Nordic model of regulating sexual services, or academic freedom – that are important but only periodically used by researchers. (Fire extinguishers aren’t high demand either. But we need them.)

To say that I need to wait 48 hours to access materials is, practically speaking, to preclude public engagement on many issues. If anything, we should have more materials in the law library – not fewer.

Pedagogically, we want law students to learn how to work with legal materials – to note up statutes and cases, and engage with secondary literature. Anything that makes it less convenient for students to do that – even if just a short trip to the Murray Library – is troubling. But a 48-hour delay?

Electronic resources are valuable, but limited in their usefulness. Many monographs are simply not available as e-books. Subscriptions to electronic databases are quite expensive, and their coverage depends on the whims and proclivities of publishers.

There are other problems with relying upon electronic resources – some of them symbolic. Physical libraries confront students with the enormous scale of learning and knowledge, and in that way ward off the thought that one has done “enough” reading, or “enough” searching for the regulation, statute, case, journal article, or book that could make all the difference.

Electronic databases obscure this. They are best for targeted searches, not for serendipitous discoveries. For that very reason, they encourage the belief that there cannot, really, be “that” much out there on a given subject. They also suffer from the grave disadvantage that one must be on the internet to use them; that one must be in a virtual space rife with competing claims on one’s attention.

Small wonder that many of us think that students learn less and work less efficiently when they are trained to work with electronic materials rather than hard-bound materials. Reasonable people can disagree about that, but why force the decision upon us?

Physical libraries also send a message about who we are. Look at your own bookshelf, and you do not see a random collection of books, but an (albeit fuzzy, incompletely worked-out) story of who you are.

Institutions have the same relationship with their bookshelves: they send a message about the norms and values that inform their day-to-day life. Legal education is inter-disciplinary, but it is also professional in orientation. To collapse the law library into the central stacks is to obscure the special connection that the law school ostensibly has to the legal profession. Indeed, law libraries and librarians do not serve only legal academics and students, but the bar. This, in turn, makes them sites where students interact with legal professionals. This again conveys the message (for better or for worse) that law students are proto-members of the larger legal community.

As the above suggests, the proposed re-configuration also raises branding problems. A law school without an autonomous library looks half-baked. The absence of a law library may well affect admissions, the hiring and retention of faculty, and relations with alumni.

One last point – and, for many, the most urgent. In the Federation of Law Societies of Canada’s Report on the Common Law Degree, it was stated: “The law school must maintain a law library in electronic and/or paper form that permits it to foster and attain its teaching, learning and research objectives.” We have extensive electronic resources, and there will still be access in some form to the physical books and reporters. Furthermore, I would not want to say categorically that an on-site library is a requirement for accreditation. Both the ABA and the Council of Australian Law Deans, among others, appear to take a somewhat flexible view of this. That makes a good deal of sense. It is one thing to say that an autonomous law library is valuable and worth preserving; quite another to say that it is a minimum requirement for accreditation.

But it is worth saying this. Obviously, the FLSC regards the presence of library holdings as an important part of legal education. When we make it more difficult for faculty and students to access those holdings, or effectively discourage them from using those resources, we do nothing to promote better professional or academic training for law students – nor to improve research or public engagement.

Annette Demers, President of the Canadian Association of Law Librarians has raised many of these concerns with Vicki Williamson, the Dean of Libraries at the U of S. The Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians has also voiced its objections. So far, the response has been tepid, if not frosty.

The law school was not consulted about this proposal. It does not have the support of faculty or students. It is wrong in principle, and should be rejected.

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Michael Plaxton is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Saskatchewan. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelPlaxton

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Comments

  1. I agree wholeheartedly. If it were a medical library, would it be acceptable to have resources available on a 48-hour basis? Law, too, can involve urgency that depends on information found outside “core” or “high demand” materials.

    But, more importantly, the law library is a public institution that anyone can visit and see that the laws are written down and not held in the minds of oracles or high priests. We must encourage law students to study in spaces that are filled to the rafters with books, periodicals and old statute books. We must encourage members of the public to go to a law library and see that laws are written down and resolved by centuries of thinking people exploring the boundaries of fairness and having to justify decisions under the glare of public scrutiny.

    There is a policy imperative to keeping law libraries filled with books and other visible resources. Increasingly, the workings of civil society and government are frustrated by an idea that unwritten rules or judicial discretion can trump written laws. There is something very symbolic and leveling about being able to bring a bound volume into court (or a lecture room) to ensure everyone is “reading from the same page.” Even though – or especially because – we now rely on photocopies or print-outs, we need the reminder that law is made of words, that words have permanence, and that some things are worth keeping close by, despite administrative pressures to warehouse them.

  2. Clear, concise, short, to the point, and most importantly, true.

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