Grey Lit in Libraries

The following is by guest blogger Professor Kathryn ArbuckleProfessor Kathryn Arbuckle is Law Librarian at the John A. Weir Memorial Law Library, University of Alberta. She teaches legal research, and has lectured in legal information sources at the Schools of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta and Dalhousie University. Kathryn was previously employed as a librarian and FOIPP administrator with the Nova Scotia Civil Service and as a researcher with the Nova Scotia Royal Commission on Health Care. She has been the treasurer of the Canadian Library Association, and is active in a number of professional associations. , Law Librarian at the John A. Weir Memorial Law Library, University of Alberta. Theme week leader Michael Lines asked her to comment on “libraries and GL.”

Like Michael, I also admit I am not an expert in GL, but I’m rarely averse to voicing an opinion, so here goes!

I think the question of GL in libraries can be viewed from a number of traditional perspectives – its value to deepening a collection, and providing alternate voices on some controversial questions and the research utility of the content; the tracking down and acquisitions challenges; more than ever, the preservation issues with so much GL appearing – often ephemerally – on the web; and the indexing, metadata, cataloguing and accessibility issues. Lots of good solid library issues to discuss here.

But I’m going to use my five cents’ worth of your time to suggest that all of those issues can also be rolled into a more basic issue – resource use – as in time and money. How much of your time (or your staff time) is GL worth to your institution? Staff time IS money, even scarcer than money in some cases. Once upon a time I was a solo librarian – I had time to track things down, but not a lot of budget to spend. GL was worth the effort. Now – at a major research law library – I spend time figuring out how to add services with less staff time available. Time formerly devoted to collecting GL (in our case, mostly government documents) has been re-allocated, so drastically reduced. We are relying more on purchased GL micro resources that fit our interests – for example, the Microlog collection of Canadian government (federal and provincial) publications. We used to collect a significant number of government publications from all Canadian provinces, but no longer. Now we focus very closely on only those titles relating to law and justice. Similarly, we subscribe to the International Human Rights Documents micro set. That has lots of good stuff that we simply could not spend the time to collect in print. So as unpopular with users as micro is, it is helping us acquire and maintain GL in our collection. This may make me both a bad librarian and a canny manager – it will take years to know which is true – or even if possibly both are true.

Then there’s all the GL out there on the web. We (collectively) can’t rest from our self-imposed mission of preserving all recorded knowledge – we have to find ways to identify it, describe it, capture it, store it, migrate it, you name it. And now we are seeing more and more institutional repositories – where will it end? Is there to be no rest for the weary? We are a small horde of tireless missionary zealots in our urge to tame the web and plunder its resources for our collections. There’s so much to do.

Or is there really, truly, all that much that we must do? Bluntly, if it can be easily found using Google, is it really worth printing it out, putting it in some binder or other covering, and getting it catalogued? Is it worth getting the site catalogued? After all, the students are more likely to start their research using Google than the catalogue anyway. Depressing as that thought is, it’s even more so if I consider I may be wasting precious staff capacity on gathering materials they’ll find more easily using Google. Sigh.

So what do you think, or more pointedly, what do you do? How do you balance the time and money aspect? Are you also relying on proxy collection services like Microlog? What other time-saving devices are you using?

And now having used up my time, I should confess that while I was drafting this, I was also printing off Ted’s thesis to have bound for my library.

Professor Kathryn Arbuckle


  1. While people may tend to use Google to find things, unfortunately governments in particular are not good at maintaining documents indefinitely on the web. As government leaders change, and as departments are reorganized or change philosophies, stores of reports and press releases have a way of disappearing from the web. If someone isn’t making an effort to capture them they may be lost, at least in electronic format.

  2. Search engines are a good way to find stuff. But they’re very bad at telling you if what you’ve found is just that, ‘stuff’, or whether it is reliable information from a reputable source.

    I think cataloguing is the most valuable service any library provides, regardless whether that means actually collecting materials in print or referencing them on-line, or a bit of both.

    With regard to the investment in time and money, I believe the internet opens up great opportunities for collaboration. Wouldn’t it be great if we could pool all our cataloguing efforts? Something along the lines of, or digg, but tailered to the legal community’s needs. The technology is there, all we need is someone to take the lead.

  3. Hannelore, I think you’ve identified one of the main values that a library collection offers: pre-evaluated materials. It is said that, with the new library systems that Web 2.0 will make possible, user education will not be needed, See Instead users will need to know that the information offered through a lbrary is the ‘good stuff.’