Rebuilding a Law School Library (Part 1)

Not all Slaw’s readers will be aware that Osgoode Hall Law School is being renovated; in fact, it might be more accurate to say the School is being rebuilt. The existing building has been completely gutted, all interior walls and finishes have been removed and everything is being reconfigured, redesigned and replaced. We’re also getting a large addition. For all intents and purposes, it will be a new law school – and this includes the library.

Since starting at Osgoode two years ago, nothing has consumed more of my time than planning the new Osgoode Hall Law School Library. The starting point for my planning has been the simple fact that the new library will occupy less than half the space of the old library. This reality has required me seriously to consider the function of an academic law library in the digital age. What is its place in the law school? What role does it play in the lives and work of students, faculty, researchers and the profession? What purpose does it serve in an age when information is digital and presence is virtual? I hope to talk about some of this in future columns; but today, I’d like to talk about book storage. I also pose a question for Slaw readers’ comments.

Since its founding in the late 1960s, the Library of Osgoode Hall Law School has always been reputed to have the largest collection of any law library in the British Commonwealth and, as far as I can determine, it still is. At last count, we have just over 500,000 volumes, and that’s just physical volumes and “volume equivalents” (microfiche and microfilm). If “digital volumes” were included, the collection would be much bigger still. So, in a new library with less than half the space, what do we do with all these books?

Traditional libraries with browsable collections displayed on open bookstacks have always been space hogs. Large university collections grew to the extent that the libraries could no longer contain them and the campus could no longer contain the library. Libraries have addressed the space problem in two ways. The first is to put as much of the collection as possible onto mobile, compact shelving. The advantage of compact shelving is that it holds as many books as traditional, open, static shelving in half the floor space. It doesn’t lend itself to high-traffic access but is perfect for storage of low-use, older materials. Once relegated to basements only, compact shelving has begun to replace all the shelving in some libraries. Here at York University, all the bookstacks in the central Scott Library will soon be compact shelving with open shelving in the reference area only.

At Osgoode, we did a study of how our print collections were being used. It should come as no surprise to anyone that our substantial collections of primary legal materials (law reports, tribunal decisions, statutes and regulatory materials) and bound law journals were barely being used, presumably because so many of these materials are now available in digital formats. It was an easy and logical decision that, in the new library, these materials – constituting 2/3 of our total collection – will go into high-density, mobile compact shelving. The remaining 1/3 of the collection comprises our text collection (monographs, treatises) and will be put onto standard, open, static shelving in spaces adjacent to study areas. Though e-book technology is improving all the time, our belief is that printed books will continue to play an important role in academic research libraries for the foreseeable future. Nor is it likely that our large retrospective collection of texts will be digitized. By putting our text collection onto open static shelving, we facilitate access, encourage use and promote the role of browsing as a research strategy. Compact shelving is essentially for book storage while open shelving is for working collections.

The Osgoode print collections occupy over 45,000 linear feet – almost 9 miles – of shelf space. Despite the decision to install mobile, compact bookstacks, there will still not be enough shelving in the new library to accommodate all our print collections when we move back after the renovations are complete in summer 2011. Private law libraries, faced with even more pressing space demands exacerbated by rising rents, are simply getting rid of their print collections, partly on the presumption that, if ever there’s anything they need that isn’t available online, they can order a copy from the nearest law school or law society library. It is no longer a safe assumption that something once as ubiquitous as the Dominion Law Reports or the Statutes of Canada, much less the Upper Canada Queen’s Bench Cases, will be available to a lawyer in-house in print. Consequently, as a law school library, we have an obligation not only to the School but to law firm libraries and the profession to maintain our extensive print collections of primary legal materials and law journals. If we no longer have room in our library to house all of our print collections, and simply disposing of them is not an option, then the only option left to us is to move some of the collections offsite.

High-density book storage facilities are common in American universities. Harvard has several, collectively referred to as The Harvard Depository, located in suburbs around Boston. The majority of Harvard’s library collections are now located in the Depository. The University of Chicago has a beautiful facility, designed by the renowned architect Helmut Jahn, under its central square. The University of Nevada at Law Vegas’s new Lied Library was designed for high-density storage. Such new high-density libraries are fully automated warehouses for books with bookstacks that are not only mobile but can be as high as 50 feet. A common feature of all these “libraries” is that any individual volume can be retrieved from storage and delivered to the patron at a central location the next day or even, if the facility is on campus, within hours. There are currently only two universities in Canada with high-density compact storage facilities: the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia. Since York University, where Osgoode is located, has no plans to build such a facility, we had no choice but to turn for help to our neighour, the University of Toronto, whose high-density facility is actually located just a few blocks from Osgoode Hall Law School. However, at the same time, we thought it timely to investigate whether we couldn’t turn Osgoode’s need to the advantage of other law libraries.

All of our law school libraries have extensive collections of primary legal materials and law journals. To a large extent, these collections are duplicated in all our libraries. Most of us are now in a position that we no longer have space to house these historical collections in our existing libraries. At the same time, these collections of primary materials have been made largely redundant (though in no way completely replaced) by online access to digital services such as CanLII, HeinOnline, Lexis and Westlaw. We’re all faced with the same problem: What do we do with our old print collections? If we all have the same problem, the same answer must apply equally: Put the collections into storage. 

Now, if we put the Osgoode archival collection into storage and the other Toronto research libraries (U of T’s Bora Laskin Law Library and the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Great Library) do the same, we will have three duplicated collections in storage. If the aim is ultimately to save space, why not put just one collection in storage and discard the two duplicate collections? If necessary, we can even come to an agreement on joint ownership of the stored collections. But in the end, we all win: we create needed space in our libraries, we store archival collections of older law materials in a clean and secure environment from which they can be quickly retrieved as necessary, and we guarantee the preservation of one “last best copy” of the books in Toronto. Similar programs are in place in Colorado and California: Why not here in Toronto or, by extension, in Ontario?

The Osgoode Hall Law School Library, the Bora Laskin Law Library and the Great Library are working out the details of an agreement that will realize this goal. We are unanimous in believing that this is good for our libraries, good for our institutions and good for the profession. We are convinced that this is the best way to guarantee the preservation of at least one print copy of essential primary legal materials in Toronto for the future. The most pressing and as yet unresolved question is: What constitutes “essential” legal materials? Are only Canadian materials essential? Is it essential or important that we maintain a complete set of American law reports or the Harvard Law Review in Toronto or in Ontario when all these materials are readily available online in imaged PDF formats and American libraries are preserving the print? What about Commonwealth materials? How essential is it that copies of “foreign” legal materials be preserved in Toronto (or Ontario or Canada) if 1) they are available to us online and 2) we can confirm that they are being preserved by libraries in their home jurisdictions?

These are the questions on which I hope Slaw readers will have an opinion and provide comments.


  1. Michael Whiteman

    Thanks for the great summary of how things are going at Osgoode Hall. Many of the points you make about duplication of print holdings are good lessons for us in the US. In KY we have three publically funded law schools and I have often thought that it would be wiser for us to have one central repository of the primary print materials rather than the three of us all collecting the same print materials that no one is looking at.
    Good luck as you move forward with the renovations.

  2. Hi Louis – Great post. As you know, we are grappling with many of the same issues and questions in the U.S. You might be interested to learn that LIPA is currently working on a collaboration with NELLCO to investigate shared storage options, beginning with a possible pilot project at a storage facility being built in the northeast. If successful, this could be the first of several regional repositories for print materials, a concept recommended at LIPA’s founding conference and by other groups. There are other such efforts in different parts of the country, mainly within university systems, and we hope this is a growing movement that LIPA can help promote. Identifying the “essential legal materials” is one of the key issues here too, but it would be a different question if we knew that Canadian libraries were developing repository collections too.

    Good luck with the decisions and renovations – Margie

  3. What constitutes “essential” legal materials? As a practicing lawyer, my opinion:

    -Treatises by topics, i.e. Russell on Roads (so we can browse before we decide which text to buy)

    -Librarian’s step-by-step handouts on how to look up the legistative intent for a particular Act and the necessary primary sources

    I’ve been licensed since 2004 (comfortable with online research) and these are the only times I’ve used legal libraries.

  4. Hi Louis:

    Great post. These are issues that likely require more thought than it takes for me to quickly post a comment. However, I thought I would say that I think you are on the right track with collaboration among the 3 major GTA law libraries (i.e., there is no need for all 3 of you to have duplicate sets of the same title in storage) and I trust the “Big Heads” to make good decisions regarding collaboration and what to keep or not.

    Off-site storage is likely the way to go.

    I also think the various “digitization” efforts are good and necessary (I hope the Ontario Law Reform Commission reports get completed sometime soon), although one must always remember the warning given by Nicholson Baker in Double Fold.

    I assume you need to be cognizant of public access to law-related information and cannot universally justify cancellation decisions on the fact that HeinOnline (for example) has a stable, reasonably priced archive of PDF sets of law journals. However, despite Baker’s concerns, to the extent that most law-related content is text-based, PDF equivalents of printed law material is likely an acceptable compromise. Presumably the emphasis on storage will be on monographs/treatises and less on case law, legislation and journals.

    Good luck with all of this.

  5. Tracy Thompson-Przylucki

    Thanks for this post Louis. As Margie mentions in her post, LIPA and NELLCO are exploring this very issue for our combined membership, which includes Osgoode Hall. In the June issue of Slice, the NELLCO newsletter, I outline our goals and provide a few additional resources for further reading. The article is entitled A Vision for a Shared Print Light Archive – Working with ‘what is’ to manage ‘what if.’ Please have a look!