Column

The Law School Laboratory

As a librarian, I’ve been trying to avoid talking about libraries in this column. Mainly because there is already a legal information column on Slaw and I wanted to keep talking about “true” law school issues.

Then I realized I was being an idiot and part of the problem that plagues libraries.

What sparked my realization was reading a couple of closely timed items. Item the first was a article on Above the Law about Washington & Lee School of Law’s Strategic Transition Plan. In reference to the plan’s “Operating budgets will be reduced by 10 percent in 2015-16 with the exception of the library budget, which will grow by 2 percent.” the Above the Law columnist wrote:

“Students? Get by with less. Institution that no one uses anymore? Here’s your raise!!! … So… law school takes a tumble in U.S. News rankings, and one of the easiest investments it can make is throwing more money at the obsolete library”

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And a law professor blogged in reference to W&L’s library budget increase:

“UCLA’s law library is fabulous and our reference librarians are a wonderful resource. But I haven’t set foot in it for years. Almost [all] of my research is done online, supplemented by office copies of a few books. If we got rid of the books tomorrow neither my teaching nor my research would take a major hit (probably not even a minor one).

Granted, the law school library can be a useful study hall for the students, but that doesn’t mean that their budgets should be going up while everything else is getting slashed.”

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And then finally, the US News and World Report annual law school rankings. I decided to look at their methodology, especially with regards to how the library figures into the calculations. Imagine my surprise when they only counted titles and volumes contained by the library and that this only accounted for .75% of a school’s total score.

.75%.

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Why is it that everyone loves libraries and librarians, but no one seems to care if we are kept around anymore? Also, why does everyone think libraries are just books? Or a study hall?

Part of the problem does lie with librarians. We’re a service profession and are sometimes loathe to toot our own horns, especially to the law faculty that we serve. I mean, the fact that I had to debate with myself whether or not to even write this column when I generally don’t hold my tongue on many topics speaks to that. Our goal is to make the research process for law professors as smooth and seamless as possible – not to interrupt the flow and correct them when they think of subscription databases like Westlaw or Lexis as “The Internet” or that they are free.

But I do also put part of the blame on those with the mistaken ideas. It’s 2015. If you consider a major portion of your job to be scholarship, you should have a basic understanding of the tools of your trade.

Some basic facts:

  • While, in the above example, the library budget is increasing by 2%, I can almost guarantee that its material costs are going up 10% or more. Annually.
  • The subscription databases that are “replacing libraries” are actually paid for from the library budget. They are not a competitor to the library, but rather they are a digital branch of it.
  • Yes, even books are on the databases. But not all are. Also, depending on the agreement with the database vendors, they may or may not be accessible to members of the public. As many academic law libraries are open to the public and are a filler of the Access to Justice, it’s important that the library has resources available to them.
  • Everything is not on the Internet. Not even close.

It’s cliché at this point to say that Legal Education is in a time of upheaval and change. There are calls on all sides to create practice ready attorneys or at least more real world skills training. Guess what? Your law school is already doing this. Yes, the legal research and writing faculty (who are often librarians) at your school has been using the law school library as a practice laboratory to give students the real world skills they need. As we are all struggling to find new and innovative techniques to improve legal education, we should remember that we all have a laboratory filled with all the tools that our students will use in their practice that we can utilize in our endeavors.

Comments

  1. And as the years go by
    Looseleaf will never die

  2. It would be useful to ask Caroline Osborne, the library director at W&L, what the meaning of that small increase really is. Perhaps it is to provide better staff services. Perhaps to implement new technology. I would kill, figuratively of course, for an increase rather than a never-ending string of budget cuts.

  3. A budget increase of 2% makes no effective difference in either the acquisition of materials or the provision of services. Reality check: In my own library, we’re getting an increase of 1.4% to this year’s acquisitions budget to match inflation. This won’t begin to make up for the actual price increases we anticipate this year (3% for electronic, 5% for print, and 10%-15% for the looseleafs and law reporters that don’t seem to want to die). To this can be added the effective 25% budget shortfall caused by the deterioration of the Canadian dollar exchange rate against the US and UK currencies. Despite a small budget increase, in the face of price increases and a deteriorating currency, we’re still going to have to find $250,000 in savings this year to make ends meet. That’s a lot of cancelled subscriptions (we’ll kill those looseleafs and law reporters finally, and perhaps the Canadian Abridgment and the Canadian Encycopedic Digest, too) and a lot of unbought books.

    As regards the operating budget (including payroll and technology expenses), we’re getting a 2.5% cut to the budget. To this cut can be added the payroll increases mandated by collective agreements. The hit on the operating budget from these two factors alone is the equivalent of one full-time employee salary — and this has been the case every year since the recession started. Where will we find these savings?

    How do we make our libraries (or laboratories, if you will) sustainable? Whether for staff, resources or services, where will the money come from? Ours is not the only law library plagued by this problem.

  4. We have experienced similar cutting of acquisitions, staff, and space while facing the pressures to offer longer hours and more diverse services. We spend an increasing slice of our time gathering evidence of our relevance.

    How do we make our libraries more sustainable? First we recognize we are part of a larger problem of unsustainable post secondary institutions in Canada. Neither students nor governments can afford the behemoths we have built.

    As for libraries, we need to start acting more like businesses. We determine who are our clients, determine exactly what our clients need from us, negotiate what they are prepared to pay for, and then deliver brilliantly those services they requested. More of our services might be a la carte, paid for through individual research grants, or student fees. We need to get better at grant writing ourselves. Our clients may decide they need less of us. That has been hard for me to accept. But no one can afford for us to be all things to all people. Universities will inevitable have to learn this, and so will libraries.