The KF Modification: A Canadian Approach to Organizing and Understanding Law

Anyone who has studied law will have used a library at some point in their studies. If you studied at an American or Canadian university, it is likely that the library’s print collections were physically organized on the shelves using the Library of Congress Classification system (LCC), a subject-based classification scheme using a letter or combination of letters to represent a broad subject (eg, D for History, DA for British history, DC for French history) and a number between 1 and 9999 to represent a narrower topic within that subject (eg, DA 445 for the Stuart Restoration, 1660-1688, or DA 452 for the subsequent Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689). All the books in a library collection on the topic of the Restoration will be found together on the shelves with the call number DA 445. This precisely subject-focussed organization of a library’s collection keeps all works on a subject together on the shelves, making it easy for a researcher to discover works on a specific subject simply by browsing the library shelves.

The LCC class number for Law is K; or, more broadly, the range of letters from K through KZ. Materials on the topic of Law in general, without any jurisdictional specificity, are classed within the letter K. Works on American law are organized within the subclass KF; works on English and UK law within the subclass KD; works on Canadian law within the subclass KE.

It is often said that that law is the only subject that the Library of Congress (LC) has organized by jurisdiction rather than a strictly subject-based focus. I can’t agree completely. For example, the D class for History is organized into subclasses by region or country, and likewise the P class for Language and Literature, from PA (Greek and Latin) through PT (Germanic and Norse languages). But there is a distinction to be made between geographical subclasses for Literature or History and jurisdictional subclasses for Law. The geographical organization is essential to the former subjects (History, Literature, etc). German literature and Latin literature are quite distinct subjects. The English Glorious Revolution is a different subject from the French Revolution. But law and legal concepts transcend jurisdictions. Contract law is contract law, whether in the United States, Britain, Canada or Australia. The distinguishing exception in LC’s approach to classifying Law is that the basic organizing principle is not the subject but the jurisdiction.

There are several reasons that the Library of Congress may have used this jurisdictional bias in classifying and organizing its law collections. The LCC has often been criticized as being enumerative rather than epistemological; that is, it was not initially conceived as a scheme to classify all the world’s knowledge but was developed at a practical level to organize and describe the holdings of one library. Further, while the Library of Congress Classification scheme was largely in place by 1939, Class K for Law was the last class of the LCC to be developed and not introduced until much later. Because the Library of Congress maintains a separate Law Library which utilized the traditional organization of law libraries by form, a subject-oriented classification for law was not deemed necessary. Hence, the development of class K was developed piecemeal and as somewhat of an expediency.

KF Modified: A Canadian, Common Law Response to KF

Subclass KF, Law of the United States, the first K schedule to be published, did not appear until 1969. Its introduction had been long awaited and it was quickly adopted by the growing law libraries of American law schools, courthouses and law firms.

In the summer of 1968, a group of Canadian law librarians, under the leadership of Shih-Sheng Hu, Law Librarian of the University of Manitoba, met at the temporary warehouse quarters of the of the Osgoode Hall Law School Library to address Canadian law libraries’ need for a viable classification scheme for their own burgeoning law collections. (The Osgoode library would not move into its permanent home in the newly-constructed Osgoode Hall Law School on the York University campus until 1969.) Canadian university library collections were already classified according to LCC, and they wanted to adopt an LCC standard for their Canadian law collections, too. In the absence of an LCC schedule for anything other than American law, they decided to adopt the Library of Congress class KF for United States federal law (at that time the only schedule available for law), but with a major difference. Given the nature of legal research in Canada, where our domestic law is researched with reference to precedent from other common law jurisdictions such as Australia, England, New Zealand and the United States, they rejected the strictly jurisdictional approach being developed by the Library of Congress, with each jurisdiction in its own separate classification schedule. They were determined to classify all common law materials together by subject within the KF schedule.

Thus was born the KF Classification Modified for Use in Canadian and Common Law Law Libraries, or KF Modified for short. Some basic modifications were made to the KF schedule in order to accommodate and organize within it legal materials from all common law jurisdictions. For most areas of law, works from all common law jurisdictions are simply classified together with the same number within the KF schedule. For example, all works on Family Law, regardless of jurisdiction, are classed together under KF 505. For some more complex areas, a system of Geographical Divisions (GDs) was developed to organize jurisdictions under one subject class number by using geographical cutter numbers. For example, works on American corporate law are classed under the number KF 1414, while works from other common law jurisdictions are classed under KF 1415, with an added jurisdictional cutter number of ZA2 for Canada, ZC2 for Great Britain, ZD2 for Australia, etc. Finally, in exceptionally complicated areas, where the subject breakdowns for US material are inadequate (for example, non-United States constitutional materials), special tables were developed to accommodate the requirements of other common law jurisdictions. A prime example is table developed to accommodate material on the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (For a quick overview of how KF Modified works, read here.)

When the Library of Congress introduced the classification schedule for subclass KE for the Law of Canada in 1976, many Canadian law libraries had already organized themselves using the KF Canadian Modification. But most of these were smaller libraries in law firms and courthouses: most Canadian academic law libraries never did adopt KF Modified, and some of those who did have recently given it up, reverting to unmodified Library of Congress Classification, using KE for their Canadian law holdings. In response to this development, a survey conducted byTim Knight in 2001 and reported in 2002 asked the question, “What is the future of KF Modified?” The question is even more pressing now, 15 years later.

Is KF Modified Sustainable?

The pressures on the sustainability of KF Modified are two: 1) its decreasing use by law libraries in Canada, especially among law school libraries; and 2) the effort of updating KF Modified to keep abreast of developments in the LCC law schedules and in law generally. Both these pressures reflect one simple but sad fact: the slow disappearance of cataloguing and technical services departments from Canadian law libraries in response to economic pressures.

Though many (if not most) Canadian courthouse and law firm libraries, including the Supreme Court of Canada Library and the Great Library of the Law Society of Upper Canada and other Ontario courthouse libraries, continue to use KF Modified, only six Canadian law school libraries continue to use it. The fist of the academic law libraries to abandon KF Modified was the University of Toronto’s Bora Laskin Law Library. This was especially saddening, as the Laskin’s Head of Cataloguing, H. Rashid, was and is still one of the guiding spirits of KF Modified. When the library at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law determined to switch from the Moys Classification, popular among non-Canadian common law libraries, to an LC classification, it decided to go with unmodified LCC. Fortunately, in integrating the JA Weir Law Library’s collections with the main Rutherford Library’s collection, University of Alberta Libraries recently decided to retain KF Modified for all the law titles in the University’s collections. Yet, despite this recent “win” for KF Modified, threats to its continued widespread use continue.

Over the years, those Canadian law school libraries that once had their own cataloguing departments have given them over to their university library’s central cataloguing department. Though this has helped the libraries realize significant savings – not least, a full-time, professional cataloguer’s salary – it has also led to a significant loss of law cataloguing expertise. As a further economizing measure, the central cataloguing departments perform as little “original” cataloguing as possible, relying on “copy” cataloguing – to obtain bibliographic records for their library catalogues. Copy cataloguing is the standard library practice of either copying records from the catalogues of other libraries or from the “cataloguing-in-publication” (CIP) data printed on the verso of a book’s title page. The Canadian CIP program, a voluntary program of co-operation between publishers and libraries coordinated by Library and Archives Canada, enables the cataloguing of books before they are published. Sadly, fewer Canadian law publishers, including Thomson Reuters Canada, are including CIP data in their books, and those that do more often fail to obtain a KF Modified classification number alongside the standard LC and Dewey Decimal classification numbers. In the absence of a KF Modified classification number in the CIP record, centralized cataloguing departments are reluctant to invest the time and expense customizing a copied bibliographic record. If a library’s aim is to save money, then abandoning KF Modified may make perfect economic sense. For large academic libraries, it’s simply cheaper and easier to use unmodified Library of Congress classification schedules to organize their law collections, despite the disadvantages for Canadian researchers. (Note: Libraries using GOBI Library Solutions (formerly YBP Library Services) for their acquisitions should be aware that GOBI supports KF Modified and will provide KF Modified classification numbers for any titles ordered through them.)

Despite these challenges, KF Modified has made some significant recent advances and enhancements. A collaborative project between the Department of Justice Canada law library and H. Rashid at the Bora Laskin Law Library, and sponsored by the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL), has provided for the integration of Quebec civil law subject and materials (LC class KEQ for Quebec Law) into the otherwise common law-based KF Modified classification. This pan-Canadian KF Modified classification, integrating common law and civil law materials into one integrated subject organization, is now in use at the Department of Justice libraries across Canada.

Nevertheless, the future sustainability of KF Modified is in question. At the CALL annual meetings, fewer and fewer people show up for the KF Modified Classification Committee meeting – and even fewer at the meetings of the cataloguing special interest group. Only one librarian, Tim Knight at the Osgoode Hall Law School Library, admits to any responsibility for KF Modified schedule, making necessary adjustments to keep it in line with LC. Perhaps KF Modified’s future will be secured by the hoped-for success of the KF Modified Linked Data Project, a joint effort of Tim Knight (Osgoode) and Sarah Sutherland (CanLII). Being conducted in two phases, this project will first convert the KF Modified schedule from a legacy print format into XML and then map the results to SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organization System), creating a dynamic data standard that can be published as linked data.

The KF Modified classification scheme is a successful Canadian response to organizing and classifying a law library to reflect the way law is researched and practised in common law systems (see Tim Knight, KF Modified and the Classification of Canadian Common Law). It has served Canadian law libraries and legal researchers well for over 40 years and continues to fill an important role in the management of our law collections. Its sustainability is, however, under threat, though new technologies may prove that there’s life in it yet.

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