Trends in Academic Law Libraries: What Are the Implications for Private Law Libraries?

In 2011 the Education Advisory Board released a report, Redefining the Academic Library: Managing the Migration to Digital Information Services, which looked at trends in academic libraries and the direction in which they were going. Although I work in a private law library while the report deals with academic libraries, I found the report very interesting; a number of challenges that it identifies are also faced by private law libraries.

The usual suspects are here: rising journal costs, the challenge of being a library in the age of Google and Amazon, and trying to do more with less. The report includes an excellent list of questions on pages xiv and xv designed to help university libraries to identify challenges, a number of which are applicable to private law libraries.

Leveraging Digital Collections

The report is divided up into four sections, the first of which is “leveraging digital collections”. Digital materials pose a number of challenges for libraries: they account for an ever increasing percentage of library budgets, and they tend to be more time-consuming to manage than books once licensing and negotiation, technological issues, and training users are factored in. The report identifies digital rights management (DRM) as one of the most significant barriers to the successful integration of digital materials, noting that:

Ironically, it is now easier to share physical books than electronic copies. Until licensed or “fair use” access to the mass-digitized corpus is resolved, colleges and universities will be unable to begin replacing physical collections with digital access to scanned material.

The move from print to ebook within university libraries may prove to be a challenge for private law libraries as it reduces the pool of materials that can be legally borrowed.

One section that I found particularly interesting was the discussion of the Patron-Driven Acquisition (PDA) model for ebook delivery. One advantage of ebooks (assuming private law libraries can find an appropriate ebook lending model) is their instantaneous nature. Typically, when a lawyer wants a book, they need it immediately, so libraries (budget allowing) tend towards the “just-in-case” model. However, libraries do not need to buy ebooks until they are requested, as the ebook model permits just-in-time acquisition and loan. The logical next question is then how will lawyers know what books are out there on a specific topic? In a PDA program,

libraries typically contract with an ebook vendor, who then places an agreed-upon portion of its listings in the library’s own catalog. Users see these ebooks along with the library’s own holdings, even though the library has yet to purchase them. The library pays the vendor only when patrons use an ebook, usually in the form of small rental fees for limited use or full purchases for extensive use.

The report examines Grand Valley State University’s PDA pilot program, wherein there was no charge for any book looked at for under five minutes; once a book was looked at more than three times (this was later changed to five times), the system automatically bought the book.

Repurposing Library Space

The third section of the report discusses repurposing library space. A significant percentage of volumes in academic libraries have never been circulated; in some institutions this is true of 80% of the collection. These non-circulating materials take up space which could be used for “collaborative learning” in university libraries or other library-related functions. From personal experience, I know that if we kept circulation figures circulation would not indicate the full extent of a book’s use as it does not account for in-library use which can be significant. The report suggests that libraries are shedding extraneous materials to free up space; I think this may be one area in which private law libraries are ahead of academic libraries. The authors provide a list of helpful suggestions as to how best reduce on-site collection size; these include using pre-set metrics and collaborative collection management.

Redeploying Library Staff

The fourth section, on “Redeploying Library Staff”, discusses a number of interesting initiatives, some of which may not be feasible for very small libraries. One of the suggestions is embedding librarians, the pros and cons of which were discussed recently by Cindy Adams in “Law Firm Librarians: Out of Sight, Out of Mind” (which talks about embedding librarians within practice groups) and Tony Chan in “The Solo Law Firm Librarian and the “Wildcard” Approach to Service” (as a solo librarian, he cannot be embedded, but he talks about how to provide services virtually).

Given that private law firm libraries tend to rely on academic libraries to supplement their resources, it is valuable to know where academic libraries are headed. If academic libraries “can no longer harbor delusions of being a completely comprehensive collection” then what are the implications for other libraries?


  1. Your last sentence is so right – this stuff IS important. I have half written my next column on aspects of this issue, and was losing heart that it might not be very relevant, but I think the issue/place of paper collections in an age of strong DRM is something worth re-iterating! Thanks for your perspective, and drawing attention to the report!