Where Will Old, Expensive, or Unexpected Legal Information Come From When Libraries All Downsize Together?

I am interested by recent discussions I have had with librarians at various law libraries about how they make decisions about what materials to keep, cancel, or discard. Many are looking at the holdings of other libraries and relying on them to provide access to less commonly used materials rather than maintaining them locally. This is understandable, but it is only a viable decision if the lending libraries continue to maintain their collections. Instead, this appears to be done without formal agreements among the libraries about retention of materials, consideration of whether it is within the supplying libraries’ mandates to provide access going forward, or if they are likely to maintain the same level of service over time.

I have experience of a large government library which provided extensive document delivery, and several university libraries chose to discard substantial holdings based on access to its collection and services. Eventually the government cut funding to the library, and difficult decisions had to be made about what was core to the organization as a whole, and one of them was that content aimed at external stakeholders was no longer core to its mandate. The university libraries had seen it as the role of the government library to maintain these collections and services in perpetuity, but there was no formal agreement that this was what it would do, and funding cycles created different priorities.

This situation is reflected on a smaller scale in several conversations I have had with librarians who are experiencing shrinking physical spaces and budgets. In each of these cases, decisions are being made regarding whether materials will be maintained as ongoing current subscriptions, discontinued but kept, or discarded, based on the holdings of other institutions. Private law libraries look to courthouse libraries, courthouse libraries look to university libraries, university libraries look to each other, and everyone looks to the Supreme Court of Canada Library. The problem is that it seems budgetary pressures are being felt at all levels of the chain, and these decisions are being made without consultation.

It used to be that most libraries maintained collections on a “just in case” basis, and, since information was so difficult to acquire, it made sense to operate that way. In times of tighter budgets, higher real estate costs, and easier access to information online, there is more pressure on libraries to maintain only those resources which are regularly used. These forces affect all libraries, but those with primarily practice based collections are particularly so: this includes libraries in law firms, law societies, and many government departments. This is represented by a switch to a “just in time” model of collection development: where materials are obtained as they are needed. However, things can only be obtained in time if they are held somewhere, and usually that means somewhere local.

A selective survey of the existing environment reveals the following: law society libraries have a national resource sharing agreement; however, it doesn’t include interlibrary loans of books or other print materials, and there is no formal agreement relating to what collections any particular library will maintain in perpetuity for the support of the others. Among academic research libraries there is an agreement among the Ontario Council of University Libraries regarding the retention of the last copies of materials, particularly journals. However, it isn’t clear if it has been implemented. It isn’t possible to include mention of all similar agreements among library systems nationally, but most libraries have information about them available on their websites.

During these discussions, we also discussed the role of the Supreme Court of Canada Library, and I have at times been the grateful beneficiary of its generous loan policies. In some ways the SCC Library is filling a role as a source for legal materials that aren’t available elsewhere, like the Library and Archives of Canada did before recent service cuts; however, there is nothing in its mandate that requires acquisition of materials to support external needs. The library has reciprocal agreements with other libraries with the aim to provide service to internal clients and contribute to the legal community nationally, which you can read about here, and it is generally supportive of giving the legal community access.

I would argue that in institutions with the extended timelines of law firms, law societies, government departments, and courts, it is a precarious thing to base decisions on having access to the SCC Library’s collections when there is no explicit mandate to make them available. Government libraries generally are retreating from the provision of access to their collections as a standard service to the public and libraries, for example consider Library and Archives Canada’s cancelation of their interlibrary loan program.

I have been told that in a public library there is, on average, a complete turnover of the collection every five years, but in law libraries the needs are different. One day there may be a real and immediate need to consult a volume from the second edition of Halsbury’s Laws of England that was published in 1932 or read a case from 1753 that was only reported in a footnote, and there will be repercussions for not having it. This is not to say that I think we should be trying to retain all obscure materials, only that decisions be made with the understanding that they will likely not be as easily available in the future.

It is a potential solution for libraries to enter into reciprocal agreements to maintain certain materials. Libraries within individual law firms could agree to maintain particular titles and share access as required. Law society libraries could agree to maintain content relevant to their own jurisdictions, freeing the others to concentrate on local needs. Universities could agree to provide access to each other as required as they discard materials, which are not regularly needed. Agreements could also be made that if the last copy of a title is being discarded it should be kept or offered to the other libraries for archival purposes. Some of these options are easier to achieve than others: for the libraries internal to a law firm to agree to supplement each others’ collections is quite straight forward, but reciprocal agreements across organizations are more difficult.

As an example, implementing a program of retention of last copies seems like it should be simple, but it is complicated when there is not an easy way to find current information about where materials are. The university libraries in Ontario have a union catalogue, but many other groups of libraries do not, and as the holdings in Library and Archives Canada’s AMICUS catalogue are not always maintained, it can be impossible to know when an item is a last copy. It is even more difficult in the case of law firms where what libraries have is considered a competitive advantage, and, short of sending and answering personal queries as a professional courtesy, it is impossible to know what anyone has.

Libraries all seem to be facing space restrictions, which limit the historical holdings they can maintain. They also all seem to have budgetary restraints, which limit what they can purchase. It is tempting to rely on other libraries to fill in the gaps. In the past this has generally been a successful strategy, but as all libraries decrease holdings it becomes a liability, and some materials are expensive, difficult, or impossible to replace if discarded in haste. I have heard anecdotes of libraries being asked to subscribe to titles another libraries have recently cancelled when they are trying to cut their own subscriptions, and without coordination it is unlikely that current networks will continue to be able to meet the needs they effortlessly handled before.

Thank you to Rosalie Fox, Louis Mirando, and Mandy Ostick who kindly answered my questions in the writing of this column.


  1. This is a very timely topic, since hardly a day goes by without an announcement of another library closure. An additional issue that greatly restricts access to information is licencing of online resources. University libraries abondon print in favour of online but their licences don’t allow copying to private firms. The only option often is to buy very expensive copies directly from publisher.

  2. sigh…if only we had some progressive Norwegian type approach in the cards and then we could suggest doing the same with legal texts. again…$igh

    The National Library of Norway is to digitize its entire collection.

  3. This is an issue I struggle with almost daily as a manager of a large government law library. I view my library as having a dual purpose: like a law firm library, it must have a practice-based focus to support the information needs of each legal practice group within the government’s legal department, but we also have a duty to be stewards of historical materials that might be otherwise lost forever. In my experience, government lawyers and researchers also have a greater need for historical materials than other law practices, so this makes weeding incredibly difficult. More than once I have found myself saying, “I wish the librarian who was here 20 years ago hadn’t disposed of X or Y, because I really need that now and I can’t find it anywhere else”. It’s not always possible to predict what will have lasting value 20 or 50 years down the road.

    I consider my library to be fortunate because we have enough space to maintain a robust historical collection and we only tend to weed outdated current awareness materials or journals available online. But our duty to preserve is not enshrined anywhere and we have no formal preservation agreements with any other libraries, nor is our catalogue accessible to those outside of government. Due to budget issues, we have come to rely more heavily on the generous ILL policies of the courthouse library and nearby universities for more current legal texts. It’s a functional workaround for the time being, but I worry that our library will become more book warehouse-like, and someone will come along and say, “no one uses the library; we can’t afford this space,” defeating our preservation efforts. Not to mention what might happen if there was a fire or an earthquake here or at another library with irreplaceable materials.

    I have started digitizing some materials that are out of copyright and have obtained permission from publishers on occasion to digitize (for internal use) some out-of-print materials that are showing their age and are no longer available to purchase, but it’s a piecemeal solution. We need a national digitization strategy so that efforts are not duplicated across the board, and we need to get publishers and authors on board to consent to the digitization and dissemination of materials that are still under copyright, but are long out of print and are no longer generating any revenue.

  4. Hi Sarah – as one of the libraries that is expected (and wants) to retain everything on site for historical reasons as well as for service provision to the profession, this problem becomes more and more acute. We want to be here to provide last resort easy access to books, etc, but the funding issue – and,, eventually, the space – makes it very hard. My worry is that those who do hold on to a small selection of paper will all have mirror collections if they only hold on to ‘what is used now’. The just-in-case collections will become even more crucial at that point. Thanks for your article. Ruth

  5. Thank you for your article, Sarah. I agree that libraries used to follow the “just in case” collection development approach. It is a strategy I totally understand and condone when material is unique (for any number of reasons). It’s an old-fashioned principle I still follow. I also agree with Ruth that the just-in-case-collection is crucial for the future. Knowing that Oxford is bound to acquire and retain UK materials is comforting. Knowing that SCC is extensive (and I know they are equally helpful to the broad community of law librarians) is equally comforting. I am sure that over the last few decades, any hope that LAC would mirror the LC or Oxford or SCC model has evaporated, particularly in view of the last round of deadly slashes.
    I agree that hanging on to variant editions of Halsbury’s has value. I cherish my 3rd ed (even though it hasn’t received updates since the 1980’s). It came to TRU’s “digital” library 2 years ago as someone’s throw-away. But once it is digitized, together with every single update, AND I can have it as a perpetual digital copy, then perhaps I would consider trashing it.
    Years ago someone wrote about the McDonaldization of collections. Why duplicate the common denominator? However, a library collection that reflects the unique characteristics of its institution by adopting a collection strategy that seeks to own unique resources (print, digital or multi-dimensional) is a valuable member of the collective.
    How the collective chooses to share records of its holdings or accommodate distant users is the question you ask Sarah. It’s a good one.
    I don’t anguish over the fact that collection sizes are shrinking. I do anguish over the fact producers of digital resources are reluctant to offer perpetual access or ownership to digital products. More worrisome is the ability by these producers to limit a library’s right to distribute digital copies as “ILL’s”.

  6. I think LIPA, the Legal Information Preservation Alliance, runs a print retention program for last copies: I think LIPA’s executive director can provide details.

  7. Sarah, Margie Maes, LIPA’s executive director, just told us that the print retention program I linked to above has been superseded by Preserving America’s Legal Materials in Print (PALMPrint)

  8. Sarah’s article is thought-provoking and timely, with law libraries everywhere being tasked with weeding and reducing the footprint of their print collections. It’s true, our fall-back consolation is to think, ‘the Courthouse Libraries will still have this’, as we say goodbye to an old text. But that’s false comfort, as Sarah points out, due to those repositories also facing pressures to cut back. The ideal for coordinating these decisions would be a union catalogue of all types of law library collections, but that would take a minor miracle to start, let alone complete. As a stop-gap, we can ensure some possibility for coordination by sharing our hit lists of titles that are about to be de-accessioned, within our various law-library social networks, such as VALL, TALL, CALL. Thanks for raising this issue so eloquently, Sarah.

  9. David Collier-Brown

    A union catalogue can be constructed at moderate cost if everyone has electronic entries, preferably in the horrible, old, but universal “marc” format. Technically it’s a variant on grep | sort | uniq.

    Once constructed, it’s a shoe-in for the mapping version of Google BigTables, which understands concepts like “my library is in Kuujjuaq”.

    If anyone is mad enough to want to do it, I’ll help.