But I’d like to think that I’m not a fundamentalist about this. Recently I’ve been thinking about the relationship between online and print, especially in law firm libraries. This post is a collection of these observations.
Print is not just going away
There are two parts to this, working with library users who have a preference for print resources and the role of print resources in historical legal research
Of course, sometimes it goes beyond a preference for print resources - sometimes it’s an obligation, thanks to the need to provide authorities to Court which are in an authorized format. Because legal databases are increasingly providing cases as pdf replicas of the print version, this is becoming less of an issue, but it’s not going away entirely.
But a lot of the time, it is just a preference. We continue to get requests for print copies, even when information is available in an online databases, where it is searchable, where it can be used by more than one person at once, and depending on the database, there are other useful ways to work with the information. The benefits of the print version, we are told, are that it is easier to use, easier to read, and makes it easier to view the information in context. I have a confession to make: I would do what I could to chase down the requested print copy, but I did not feel at all sympathetic about these requests. Maybe I was annoyed because I saw this rejection of online information as a failure of our training or marketing. It’s been interesting, because there have even been graduates and new solicitors who prefer printed information over online information.
This issue leads to one of the fundamental questions about law libraries:
Do we give people what they want, or what they need? I guess this question can be considered a few different levels. We’ve all had those reference interactions which may have initially been expressed as a want to locate a particular case or article, but after further conversation, we see that the actual need is something else. On the other hand, nobody likes a paternalistic librarian who ignores what users actually want, so they can push their own agenda.
I still think that online information has a lot of advantages and when somebody rejects it in favour of print information, I’m interested in knowing why. But where I’ve possibly become more moderate is realizing that sometimes these individual preferences can’t be changed by more education/training or marketing. They run deeper than that, and should be respected accordingly - even if they can’t always be prioritized.
I can imagine that at some point in my library career, we will reach a point where current legal materials are all paperless, whether it be cases or statutes or articles or books. But I can’t imagine that anyone will ever bother to digitize a long forgotten textbook on Admiralty law from the 1850s, or every single unreported decision from every jurisdiction in Australia.
I am aware that many important old materials have been digitized, but what about the long tail? Would Google or anybody else digitize a document which has a 99% chance to never be needed again? And what about smaller jurisdictions? It’s one thing to digitize historical legal documents that are relevant to the huge US legal market, but what about smaller jurisdictions such as Australia? Within Australia, what about smaller jurisdictions such as Tasmania?
I know that most of us will cope with this by interlibrary loans or arranging access to libraries with good historical collections, but that only goes so far. The time for the fastest possible document delivery can be unacceptably long in a law firm library. I just wish the powers that be would realize that the paperless library involves a trade off.
It would be nice if a good historical collection of legal materials were seen as a competitive advantage for a law firm, rather than just wasted floor space.
Law firm libraries are under constant pressure to become smallerFloor space is expensive, and its allocation is highly competitive, which means that it is a very rare or lucky law library which has managed to keep all of its space after a move. In addition to that, decreasing floor space is connected to with reducing a firm’s carbon footprint.
Libraries need space for two main things, housing print resources and providing a conducive place for studying and research. One difficulty is that both of these things are difficult to put a dollar value on.
Another difficulty is that when we try to use space more efficiently for housing the collection, it can detract from the use of the space as a place of research. Compact shelving makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think it’s as visually attractive as less efficient low shelving. Offsite storage makes sense too, but it disrupts the browsing process.
I’ve heard many example of new solicitors getting stuck on a research problem, and basically going around in circles on it for hours, even days, before contacting the library for help. I would like the law firm library to be the antidote to this problem, with a pleasant and non-intimidating environment, so people go there for hard-core research - sooner rather than later. It could provide a shelter from the constant interruptions and has experts -librarians - at hand, who can help with smaller questions (such as using a research database effectively) as well as the bigger ones (such as consulting on a research strategy). I can’t see this happening as effectively in a broom closet or a corridor, to use some extreme examples.
The challenge for law libraries is that the people who prefer printed information, whom I discussed above, are often not the same people who make decisions about the size of libraries.
It’s an awkward time, where most information that is needed most frequently is online, but there is still a vast expanse of historical information which is occasionally needed. If the trend of physically smaller libraries continues, will historical information end up being held by fewer libraries, causing it to become less accessible? Will this trend cause a vicious cycle - or virtuous circle - so that as historical information becomes less accessible, it is used less and therefore needed less, causing it to become more obscure?