Library Budgets and Priorities: A New Year and a New Normal

For my first column of this year, I had first thought to compile a “top ten” list of major issues currently confronting law libraries and librarians. As I started work on the list, two things quickly became clear to me: first, the column’s space constraints would allow only the most cursory treatment of the ten issues; and second, it was becoming more and more obvious that almost all ten issues were related to or even driven by one great issue. That issue is library costs and the shrinking budgets with which we are expected to cover them. Law schools continue to operate on fiscal years running May-April, and I’m getting ready for my third quarter budget review and fourth quarter forecasting exercise. Meanwhile, my colleagues in law firms have completed their budgets for the new calendar year. While the drivers in academic and private law libraries might be different, all of us are dealing with the same basic problems. Costs are rising, often precipitously, and budgets are shrinking. 

My budget was cut by 2% last year. Some schools and many law firms had much bigger cuts. Meanwhile, though the CPI is currently hovering around 1%, publishers’ prices continue to increase 5%-20% annually (depending on product format). Staff salaries at my school increased 2%-3% (collective agreements). As Mr Obama says, it’s simple math, and the math just doesn’t work. Somewhere, something has to go. But most of us have already pared our staff and our acquisitions to the minimum. What options are left to us and what does the future hold for our budgeting efforts? How can we remain relevant and even advance our libraries and services in ways that anticipate our users’ needs, not just react to financial constraints?

In law firms especially, the library is seen as a cost centre that generates no revenue, or even as a black hole that into which money simply disappears. The services and benefits provided by the library to lawyers and the firm’s business are not beans that can easily be counted. Even the best library marketing initiatives are met with humourless stares from the accountants. With law firm revenues and growth flat, the library budget will be cut. How are law firm libraries dealing with this imperative? Or perhaps the better question is, what measures are being considered by law firm management to effect these savings? What will be the consequences of implementing these measures? What inevitable retaliatory measures will publishers adopt in response?

  • While many small firms have never been able to afford Lexis/Quicklaw or Westlaw (a reason to laud the law societies which provide access to members as a benefit of bar fees), large law firms have traditionally subscribed to both. Now, some large law firms already have and others are getting ready to cancel one of either Lexis or Westlaw because both can no longer be afforded. In my mind, this move will not at all compromise the quality of practice and is overdue. But will the service providers, having become “sole service providers” within the firms and in the absence of a competing service, take this as an opportunity to raise prices indiscriminately? Will they accelerate the trend of removing databases from the annual flat-fee subscription package, moving them to a pay-as-you-go access model?
  • Do any law firms continue to subscribe to commercial law reports or the Canadian Abridgment? And what about looseleaf services (supplemented texts) generally? Have the costs of these resources finally escalated to the point of no “return on investment”, prompting law firms to abandon them without regret? Will law publishers finally begin to develop practical digital equivalents to these products that realistically priced and aren’t compromised by counter-productive DRM (Digital Rights Management) restrictions? Or will the opposite occur and the affordable, practice-focused products (like former Canada Law Book’s Spectrum products) be moved from a practice-friendly platforms and reasonable subscription models to the more expensive aggregator model? Will law publishers ever introduce e-books that can be used in practice (the models already exist in the academic arena), or will they continue to offer us only the option of read-once-and-discard digital texts, with no facility for highlighting, annotating, sharing or saving text?
  • Pressed by both real estate and subscription costs, many law firms have disposed of their print collections, keeping only a bare minimum of hard-copy resources in a traditional onsite library space. As some support services (eg, research) are being “off-shored”, will administrative services (HR, financial services – and the library?) be “in-shored” and moved from the expensive real estate of a downtown office tower to a strip mall in the suburbs, or even to a small town far away? Some American mega-firms have already done this, centralizing support services from high-rent urban centres to a small town in Kentucky or North Carolina (but why never Upstate New York?). Will we see the trend in Canada?
  • For librarians in many firms, KM (Knowledge Management) has proved to be an empty bottle. Too often, librarians are being denied roles for which they are professionally and temperamentally qualified. Though the practice is counter-intuitive, competent and cost-effective librarians are being squeezed out of law firms, their roles filled by “KM lawyers” at one end or technicians at the other. Is this a trend or an anomaly? Is it evidence that perhaps law firms don’t really understand the premise and potential of KM? Or does the fault lie in ourselves and a failure to promote law librarians as legal information specialists? Will law firms, once so supportive of their librarians, again see the real and increasing value that librarians can add to their information services in a changing information environment?

These are just a few of the options being presented to law firms. At the law schools, too, libraries are suffering. Over-indebted governments are cutting funding to our public universities and tuition increases cannot begin to cover those cuts. Priority financing goes to research (without regard for the library’s essential supporting role) and to faculty and staff salaries while our infrastructure crumbles and students despair at the diminishing levels of service and support. Enrolments grow and our libraries don’t, with the result that there is no longer space to accommodate “traditional” collections in existing library buildings. How are academic libraries – and especially academic law libraries – responding to these challenges? What are the options and potential dangers confronting them?

  • As a rule, academic libraries operate on two separate and distinct budgets: one for acquisitions and one for operations (including salaries). But this system is dysfunctional. I can’t make savings in one budget and move those funds to the other. Nor can I save money one year for use in the next. Each budget is an annual “use it or lose it” proposition, with little scope for strategic or long-term planning and no real incentive save any of the annual allotment. Can universities (and the public service generally) not implement a budget process that allows for strategic planning? In libraries especially, we need to move money from hard-copy to virtual initiatives – but this is extremely difficult with current budget practices.
  • There continues to be a role for the library as “place”, but this is often subsumed into the new book-free zones known as “information commons” which accommodate work, study and learning (and a fair bit of “info-tainment”) while facilitating access to research and technical support. These commons occupy space formerly filled by stacks, as do the new group study rooms and other collaborative spaces demanded by our students. What will we do with the sizable print collections for which we can no longer find space in our existing libraries? At Osgoode, we halved our library’s footprint by using compact shelving, but this is only a short-term solution. A very few Canadian universities (Toronto, Alberta, British Columbia) have offsite, high-density shelving facilities, but what can the rest of us do? Will we in Canada ever develop collaborative, shared regional print repositories/archives on the model of those in the States (cf Centre for Research Libraries Print Archives Network)? Can our schools or provinces be convinced to develop and finance such a facility for the common weal?
  • Further to the above, when will we begin an organized, comprehensive preservation/digitization project for our historical law collections? Preservation must procede hand-in-hand with digital access. The Internet Archive and Hathi Trust (for monographs), and JSTOR and Ontario’s Scholars Portal (for journals – unfortunately not open-access) are a start, but we need something for Law. The recently-announced LIPA (Legal Information Preservation Alliance)-NELLCO (New England Law Library COnsortium) PalmPrint collaborative initiative is a giant step in this direction and a great model for Canada. In addition to the obvious benefits for our libraries, both in law firms and law schools, nothing could contribute more directly and immediately to access to legal information and access to justice generally than a freely-accessible, web-based collection of pre-1990 Canadian legal materials, both primary and secondary.
  • This past year, Canadian universities did not renew their copyright licences with the egregiously misnamed Access Copyright collective (though Toronto and Western eventually caved in and negotiated new licences). These licenses – really an intimidation and protection racket subsidized by public funds – had been a serious impediment to research and learning and an unnecessary drain on our finances for too long. But we’ve made a new start and the savings and benefits have been immediate. Now it is time to push the envelope and for all of us in the academic arena, especially librarians, to extend in-house understanding of fair dealing to at least the levels widely agreed as acceptable. Public opinion, Parliament and the courts are all currently on the side of “users’ rights” in copyright interpretation. These rights can only be fixed by legislation or determined by litigation; and, if this is so, then perhaps we have an obligation to bring it to this head. We must stand up for the free and fair use of information in the academic and legal arenas.
  • Paraphrasing Richard Susskind in his opening address to last year’s annual meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries in Boston, “Law schools have always been on the cutting edge of tradition.” While Susskind was speaking of our schools’ failures in preparing students for the practice of law in a changing legal services market, the same critique can be levelled at our law libraries. What are we doing to move our libraries beyond the walls of the law school? Are we promoting such important initiatives as open-access casebooks (cf CALI’s eLangdell) as a practical remedy to increasing law school costs and to facilitate public access to legal information? What about open access generally and the necessary digital repositories of research (at the institutional, local, regional or even national level) to promote Canadian legal research and to facilitate access to publicly-funded scholarly research by lawyers and the public?

Rising costs and shrinking budgets are the new normal – so much so that, rather than having to learn to do “more with less”, we are now obliged to do “less with less”. In my mind, the real challenge is not to do less but to do different, to move our libraries forward with new services that address developing information needs in cost-effective and relevant ways. In these circumstances, collaboration and sharing will be our best and even only options.

The recent Hildebrandt 2013 Client Advisory begins with this quote from Peter Drucker, management consultant, author and “social ecologist”: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”


  1. David Collier-Brown

    There is an interesting parallel between the library and the computer room: if they’re seen as cost centres, the company is on the road to failure.

    My experience in the computer industry is that business units which “own” the computer resources that support making a profit succeed, albeit at the disadvantage of sometimes duplicating a service that some other line of business also provides.

    Companies which put all the computers in a single department, reporting to the comptroller, get to watch the computer budget fall year over year, and eventually find they can’t support even their current business initiatives, much less a burst of business due to some beneficial publicity.

    In an information-intensive industry, the same applied to the library. If the library belongs to building services (as one company actually had it), it will be squeezed until it can’t do it’s job, and every computer scientist and many individual business units will have to recreate it.

    I once received the donation of a table and chairs from my Director, who needed the space in his outer office for more library shelves: our central library was to be cancelled! We eventually saved all the holdings, at the cost of having to make deals with another department to split the subscriptions between us.

    If I had to face that problem in his place, I would be doing something very similar, allowing physical plant to own the room, but the different departments to own the individual journals, and a commensurate share of the librarian. Then when cost cutting was proposed, they’d be able to resist changes that threatened to sabotage the business.


  2. Barbara Garavaglia

    In response to your question–“when will we begin an organized, comprehensive preservation/digitization project for our historical law collections? “–one important organization was left out of your list. LLMC Digital is a non-profit whose mission includes: 1) Preserving legal titles and government documents, and 2) Making this valuable content accessible and searchable. For purposes of full disclosure, I am a member of the LLMC Digital Board.

    LLMC is a non-profit which began back in 1976 as a non-profit and was the brainchild of law librarian Jerry Dupont. Initially, preservation was accomplished using microfiche, but when the digital age began LLMC became LLMC Digital and began digitizing legal materials and making them available and searchable at low cost. In addition to digitizing legal materials LLMC Digital has a longstanding commitment to preserving the original print–“the original paper blocks of scanned books are preserved in ideal dark-archive space leased by LLMC in salt mines in Kansas.” .

    LLMC Digital is working in partnership with several scanning sites and collaborating with libraries. More importantly, LLMC Digital is continuing its longstanding commitment to digitization and preservation. For additional information about LLMC Digital and its extensive digital collections, see .

    Canadian Law Libraries should consider collaborating with LLMC Digital for preservation and access, especially since LLMC Digital collects and preserves foreign law materials as well as historical American material.

    In answer to the question “when will we begin an organized, comprehensive preservation/digitization project for our historical law collections?” — the answer is that it started in the 1970s with the creation of LLMC Digital. There are newer players in the field, but I hope that LLMC Digital’s work is not left out of the equation.

    Barb Garavaglia
    Director and Librarian
    University of Michigan Law Library