Could You Build a Law Library From Nothing?

I have worked in several law libraries, and I can remember the way each one felt when I first saw them; full of beauty and potential, but completely overwhelming. With each new library I would take a tour while someone knowledgeable about the collection explained where various things could be found, and each time I tried to take it all in, knowing full well that it would be months before I would feel confident that I could find anything. A new collection feels like a massive challenge to learn, and while I’m finally feeling more confident in my current position, I still feel as if each new library is a vast treasure trove, carefully hoarded over decades of collecting, and impossible to know in its entirety.

Now I’ve been mulling over a different challenge. What would happen if instead of being hired into a library, full and complete, you were hired to begin a law library from nothing? Could you build your own collection, and where would you start?

I recently attended the British and Irish Association of Law Librarians Annual Conference online, where I heard from Greg Bennett, who was hired to do exactly that. His job was to build a law library from scratch for a new law programme at Goldsmiths, University of London. Luckily he was given a budget, but there was little space in the existing Goldsmiths library to fit a new print collection, and no law books at all to begin with, only the normal databases from other programmes. I didn’t take notes on everything he bought, but even without the exact details, I can’t get the problem out of my head. Could I build my own library from scratch?

Greg was very strategic in finding law books which were being discarded in print from other libraries, so that he could use print copies of historical materials to supplement the current materials that were published online for free. He carefully weighed databases, choosing those with unique content and also paying attention to useability and ease of navigation. He focused on the materials the students would need each year, since the classes a first-year student takes are different from the later years, and the first year of his library’s existence, all of the students were first-years. Aside from the free items in print, Greg mainly focused on electronic resources, which served him well when the pandemic cut off access to the physical library. He also bought collection licenses which allowed wide-ranging access to titles on a trial basis for a year, after which time he would purchase the most heavily used items.

Greg’s strategies of looking for free items, utilizing collection-wide trials to purchase most-used materials, focusing on the needs of the current classes, and focusing on electronic materials are all good lessons for other librarians. I think that existing libraries could go one step further and use Greg’s experience as a thought-experiment, perhaps for a library retreat or a massive overhaul of collections.

I think libraries should consider their resources as if they had to build their collections from scratch. It’s been a few years since I read Marie Kondo’s book, the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but one part stuck in my memory. She tells readers to put every piece of clothing they own in one place, so that they can decide what to keep and what to discard. And I believe she said that if you forget something, perhaps because it is in a hall closet or in some place other than the rest of your clothes, that’s a good sign that you should just discard it all. If there’s something you can’t even remember you own, it is probably not something that is bringing you joy. (It is possible that she wasn’t quite this harsh and I’ve exaggerated a bit here, but I didn’t have time to re-read her book before the deadline for this column).

What if libraries did this? What if all the librarians sat in a room and named things which we absolutely need to have in our collections? It would take hours (or weeks, depending on the size of your library), but what if we actually could make a list, from most to least important, of the resources necessary for the functioning of the library? What if you canceled the resources that nobody could remember to name? It’s probably not remotely feasible for any but the smallest of libraries, and I can hear the hardworking collection services department at my library letting out a mental groan at the thought of cancelling so many resources and then needing to re-purchase the actually necessary (but forgotten) ones. For someone like me who has mainly worked in large libraries, there’s a certain kind of allure to this idea. I wish I could get rid of the resources that nobody can name and buy expensive new resources. More importantly, I wish I knew the collection as though I had bought each part of it myself.


  1. Alan Kilpatrick

    I enjoyed reading this and sympathize with you Amelia! I felt the same way while downsizing my library space. I expressed my feelings here: What’s a bit of space? ( I approached the downsize as an exercise to consider what we had and why. It was an opportunity to almost “rebuild” our physical space and collection from the ground up.

    The reference to Marie Kondo seems appropriate here. Truthfully, libraries should be aware of the visual message they transmit. What message do dusty shelves of unused books send?


    Alan Kilpatrick, CD, BA, MLIS
    Co-Director & Librarian, Legal Resources
    Law Society of Saskatchewan