Feeling Weedy?

Summer is for weeding. The horticultural among us use the sunny days for tending to their gardens. The bibliocultural among us tend to our collections. This summer, as every summer, I read shelves, assessed collection strengths, and determined the fate of subscriptions and individual volumes – keep or chuck? Repair or replace? Track down missing volumes, or write them off? And I shifted, and I shifted, and I shifted. We’ve now got grow room in the areas that need it, and I got a great upper body workout.

Shifting books is one of those activities that permit contemplation. As I muscled OLRB Reports from one bay to another, I started to muse about how library collections are evolving. Expectations have certainly changed over the past forty years. I grew up in a small town outside of Ottawa. Homework assignments were answered using local resources – the high school library WAS the public library for much of my childhood. If the assignment was really important and your parents willing to drive you, you could take advantage of the vaster resources of the Ottawa Public Library, or the university libraries. But most of the time, local was good enough. I remember writing a project on Wales based on three paragraphs in the Encyclopedia Britannica and the reminiscences of my maternal grandfather, who’d grown up in Cardiff. Grade Three was a much simpler time.

How things have changed! Students, professionals, and citizens – we want it all, and want it now. It is possible to gather statutory comparators from around the globe (not every country to be sure, but you can easily go beyond the British and American examples on which we humble Canadians have traditionally relied). A staggering amount of analysis, from journals so obscure as to be laughable – is now mere clicks away (with a PayPal account or credit card). With so much available to us virtually, what do we need to keep in our physical collections?

Not so long ago, every law library worth the name housed numberless volumes of the various law reports, federal and provincial statutes, Now, the listservs are full of notices of freebies available for the cost of shipping. We’re dumping our reporters in favour of online. A straw poll among colleagues indicates that this is happening not only in the small organizations, but also in the big collections – The Great Library, Supreme Court and law school libraries are also making changes.

Fair enough – the space and financial constraints are universal, and I certainly can’t expect the big libraries to keep an obscure journal on the odd chance that I might, some day, need that article on wage discrimination in China under Mao. Chances are I’ll be able to obtain it by contacting a source in China. I call this “just in time” collection development, as opposed to “just in case” collection development.

But a little voice in the back of my head continues to ask that nagging question: “Am I going to regret this?” What is everyone is throwing out the same stuff? Should I be checking with my favourite ILL partners to see if I should be keeping this, or am I safe?

Not surprisingly, our professional associations have been grappling with these issues for some time. AALL has many several groups addressing questions raised from a number of perspectives – collection development, resource sharing and preservation. A subcommittee of CALL’s Preservation Needs Committee has been wrestling with the issue of “last copies” since the 2007 conference. The leaders of our profession are addressing the larger strategic issues. How does that guide my actions in my own collection?

How much trimming enhances the value of a collection, and how do you know when you’ve reached it? Do institutional and specialist libraries have a duty to think of the larger community when they weed, or is the mandate solely set by the funding institution? (Just to be clear – I count my own Ontario Workplace Tribunals Library as a specialist library. Size is not the sole determinant of the need to think broadly). Is more consultation needed between libraries before cuts are made? Should we be sharing our collection development policies with each other, or developing them cooperatively? How can we fill collection gaps effectively?

Who keeps the last copy? Does it have to be a paper copy? The mandate of the Library and Archives Canada to collect Canadian publications can give us some comfort on that front, but where do I turn for the esoteric international materials? I see lots of traffic about serials and case law reports, but I seldom see notices about monographs being discarded. What are we risking by not sharing those lists as well?

A conversation is needed. I look forward to your comments.


  1. Thanks for the commentary Wendy. Those are thought-provoking questions that I also have. As a private law firm library, I wonder if we can co-operate, given the competitive nature of the industry. Yet I have the same issues with space and funding as a publicly-funding library.

  2. This is great timing Wendy. I am in the midst of writing a paper on ‘paper collections in law libraries’, a topic close to my heart! Your comments are most welcome, and raise many important issues we may have been avoiding.

  3. Excellent post, Wendy!

    It may be that weeding print journals and case law reports is easier, because the comfort level for researchers is higher due to high availability in electronic format, the space and costs savings are obvious to management, and I’d guess that these publications are getting less use in print than ever before.

    Rita Reusch recently offered her thoughts on this in Law Library Journal, from a U.S. academic perspective. But as you say, the international needs for “humble”(!) Canadian law libraries is somewhat different. Since maintaining a “last copy” collection could potentially span a huge array of print materials, it’s hard to know where to stop on that spectrum. I’m not sure keeping the last copy at a particular institution is the best idea, because every library is subject to changes in funding or scope, whether it’s law firm practice areas changing or government closing a publicly accessible law library down.

    Digitizing the material for broader access seems like an obvious “good thing”, although it gets into the “book as artifact” as opposed to information container problem. Is there less benefit to keeping an artifact if we’ve got reliable electronic access? Is it harder to justify to bean counters why we’re keeping it, if we contribute to the “everything on the Internet” mindset?

    I’m also interested in the “last library standing”, where a particular library collection becomes the informal home for last copies because a particular volume on, say, Martian law will not have been kept by any Martian libraries. If we’re relying on UK or US or Australian libraries to keep content for us, what impact can we have to ensure access to that information; and if we can’t ensure access, is the only other alternative to take on that responsibility ourselves?

    I think collaboration among libraries would be helpful – linking up online catalogs to highlight how many copies of a particular edition are available, for example – but if we are really going to ensure last copies, it will need to be with a solution that is firewalled off from the ups and downs of organizational pressures on library collections.

  4. I recently enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation with Balfour Halévy, one of the “lions” working on the last-copy committee. An issue raised in that group which hadn’t even registered with me is the question of annotated textbooks. There’s a lot of potential for knowledge transfer in reading marginalia – especially if the annotator is an expert in the field. This ties back to Karen’s comment about the ability of firms to contribute to co-operatives at the risk of their competitive advantage.

    At the very least, I think that Balfour’s advice would be to cling to those annotated books, even if you can’t share them.