Developing a Library Collection Development Policy: Journals Part 2

This is another in a series of columns about developing a law library collection development policy for the new, digital information environment. In my last column, I looked at journals – what they are, how they’re produced and their respective markets. In this second part, I’ll look at how journals are used in legal research today in both practice and in law schools, their place in a contemporary law library collection, and possible policies for collecting them.

Journals vs Books

Journals are used differently than books. A legal treatise examines the many aspects of a single, relatively broad topic and is written by a single author or by a very few authors working together. If I’m looking for information on contracts, I’d never pick up a journal; I’d turn first to a treatise on contract law such as or Chitty, Fridman, McCamus, Swan or Waddams. I might never have read any of these texts cover-to-cover, but I know they’re there and comprehensive. If I’m a commercial lawyer or academic teaching commercial law, I’ll probably own one or more of these texts and want it always nearby. I’ll also presume there are similar treatises on other aspects of law, readily found by checking a library or publisher’s catalogue (usually online) or by browsing the shelves in my firm, school or local courthouse law library.

A journal, on the other hand, is a collection of numerous articles on often unrelated topics by different authors working independently. If you’re looking for in-depth information on some problematic, arcane or unusual aspect of a subject, you would probably expect to find this in the journal literature rather than in a book. Finding a relevant journal article won’t be as easy as finding a relevant book; you can’t browse the volumes of a journal for a relevant article as easily or readily as you can a library shelf for a relevant book. To find a relevant journal article, you’ll have to search in one of the online legal periodicals indexes or full-text journals databases on HeinOnline, Lexis or Westlaw.

The real difference between books and journals is their function in providing information. A book is a known, authoritative and comprehensive resource, kept on hand for ready reference and regularly and repeatedly referred to. The individual articles in a journal, however, will probably only be referred to once, if ever, when they’re first received; and the only articles that will be read, if any, are those that are of immediate relevance to the reader’s practice or research interests. The reader’s only purpose in checking the issue is for professional development and current awareness – “to keep up with the literature”. If ever referred to again, a particular volume or issue of a journal will only be retrieved in response to a literature search. This functional difference is reflected in the different way in which journals are acquired or collected by libraries, and especially in the way that they are retained by libraries and accessed by users in print or digital formats.

Print vs Online

Unlike books, almost all journals are now available online. Many researchers are still reluctant to consult an electronic book: books are long, users are uncomfortable with extended reading online, and it’s impractical to print an entire book. Most researchers, however, will not hesitate to consult a digital journal: a journal’s table of contents can be quickly scanned, journal articles are short and can be comfortably read online or easily and quickly printed. This preference is reflected in a library’s print collection. Readers prefer books in print and a library can build and maintain a print collection of core legal treatises on a few bookcases. The print text collection can be weeded as the books become dated or superseded by new editions. On the other hand, it’s difficult, labour-intensive and expensive to maintain a collection of journals in print. The journals require binding or have to be kept in boxes and the collection is ever growing and can begin to overwhelm the space allotted to the library. Since it is usual to access and retrieve journal articles digitally, it is no longer necessary to keep a collection of journals in print. Except for the few exceptions detailed below, this is now our policy at the Osgoode Hall Law School Library.

Lawyers in Ontario and British Columbia now have access to the complete collection of digitized journals on HeinOnline as part of their bar membership. Hein and many other digital journal collections (Lexis/Quicklaw, Westlaw) are also available to students and faculty at every law school in the country. Additionally, many journals, especially law reviews, are open access and available free on the web. As finding tools for what’s available on the web and elsewhere online, the Great Library of the Law Society of Upper Canada provides an Alphabetical listing of periodicals and journals available online (though beware the many broken links). Similarly, the Osgoode Hall Law School Library has a Journals Portal which is very thorough in its listings, though not all open-access journals have yet been listed (a project that’s in progress, hopefully to be completed this summer). Among the “free law” Legal Information Institutes, AustLII provides a substantial collection of full-text Australasian law journals. There has been talk of CanLII doing the same for Canadian law journals; let’s hope the day comes sooner rather than later.

There are only two reasons I can think of for acquiring or keeping a journal in print: the first is for current awareness and access to current issues, and the second is for preservation.

Current Awareness

Many of the journals available on Hein Online, Lexis/Quicklaw and Westlaw Canada are subject to an embargo on the publication online of the most current issues, which are available exclusively in print for the first six or 12 months after initial publication. If immediate access to the most recent issues is a concern, you have no option but to subscribe to the journal and to keep paper copies of the print issues until online access is available. Our policy at the Osgoode Hall Law School Library is to keep for three years the print copies of any journal available online but subject to an initial online publication embargo. We no longer bind these journals and, after three years, they go into the recycling bin. We otherwise depend solely on online access. Indeed, if the current issues are available in an imaged PDF format on HeinOnline or open-access on the web, we now no longer subscribe to the journal in print.

For current awareness purposes, both HeinOnline and most open journal systems allow subscribers to set up table of contents (TOC) alerts for new issues of journals as they are published. These TOC alerts can be delivered by email or RSS and further free both libraries and end users of any dependency on the paper format. The timeliness and convenience of these alerts are unbeatable, with the added advantage of freeing libraries from the time and expense of receiving, processing and routing new issues. They also allow libraries to manage the growth of their library collections without sacrificing access.


The only other reason to subscribe to a journal or to maintain a journal collection in print is for preservation purposes – a consideration that really need concern only academic and other public libraries and not even all of them. At Osgoode, our policy is to maintain a print subscription to every law journal printed in Canada, which we will then keep in the library permanently. We are doing this strictly for preservation and archival purposes, despite the cost. We feel no similar obligation to other, non-Canadian journals, which we are cancelling or keeping for only three years, as described above. The only non-Canadian journals we continue to acquire in print and bind for the permanent collection are those that are not available online. We are not discarding our extensive bound collections of these other journals, but we are not adding to them and they may eventually go to offsite storage. The reality is that no one uses these paper journal collections anymore; digital is just so much more practical and realistic.


The print journal is yet another publishing format that has lost relevance in the current and developing digital information environment. Given their production methods, cost, content, function in research, usage and increasing availability open access or in aggregated online services, it is difficult to justify collecting them at all. Aside from the issues regarding current awareness and preservation, I can see no reason to continue collecting them in print.

At the Osgoode Hall Law School Library our current collection policy for journals is as follows:

  1. In all cases, digital formats are preferred over print.
  2. Do not acquire but provide online access to desired titles that are:
    • available on the Web on an open-access basis from the parent institution whose ability to archive and preserve is reliable and stable; or
    • hosted by an established supplier (eg, HeinOnline, Scholars Portal, JSTOR) or a government entity whose ability to archive and preserve is reliable and stable; and
    • are up-to-date (i.e., the current issue is available) and in a stable, citable format (such as PDF or with original pagination).
    • Acquire in print but retain only for five years and do not bind titles subject to moving walls (ie, limited publication embargo on current or recent issues) in their online digital format.
    • Acquire in print, bind and maintain a print archive of:
    • All journals associated with Osgoode Hall Law School;
    • All Canadian legal and law-related journals (strictly for archival and preservation purposes and out of a sense of obligation to the Canadian law library community generally and our traditional role specifically);
    • Non-Canadian publications deemed necessary to the School’s research or curricular needs and available only in print

Many of my academic colleagues (but certainly not colleagues in private law libraries) might find this policy drastic. I and my school’s library committee (who reviewed, debated and approved the policy) think it is only reasonable in today’s information environment. I would like to emphasize that is was not adopted solely for financial reasons, though the cumulative savings in subscription costs, processing time and space requirements are considerable. If trends in open-access scholarly publishing and free access to legal information continue to advance, our acquisition of print journals will decrease even more. Equally decisive would be the existence of a Canadian law journal current awareness service (as has been proposed by Simon Fodden and others) and a repository of Canadian legal scholarship (again, as proposed by Simon and others).

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