Friday, November 1, 2013

The Evolving Law School, Part I: What Should Be the Role of the Law Library?

Decreases in enrollments naturally mean decreases in revenues. The question is how will law schools adjust their budgets to deal with the loss of income? One strategy that some law schools are using is to lay off faculty and staff.

While personnel costs account for approximately 66-75% of most law school budgets, cutting personnel might not be the best approach to the problem of declining revenues. Educating students, and helping them secure employment have to be our first priorities. Any decisions we make must support those priorities. Firing faculty or administrative personnel will cut expenses, but I think the detriment to our students might outweigh the savings from those cuts.

If we don’t layoff faculty or staff, how can we reduce our budgets? The answer could be different for each law school, but every expense must be scrutinized. We have to ask how each expense supports the educational mission of the law school. From time to time I will post my thoughts on the various law school expenses, and ask how those expenses support the educational mission. In that regard, my first post on the subject examines the role of the law library in legal education.

Library budgets represent a large portion of overall law school expenses, and libraries require a substantial amount of the law school’s usable space. That is not surprising, considering that the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools require that libraries have adequate space and resources.

Additionally, Standard 606 states:

 (a) The law library shall provide a core collection of essential materials accessible in the law library.

(b) In addition to the core collection of essential materials, a law library shall also provide a collection that, through ownership or reliable access,

        (1) meets the research needs of the law school’s students, satisfies the  demands of the law school curriculum, and facilitates the education of its  students;

        (2) supports the teaching, scholarship, research, and service interests of the  faculty; and

        (3) serves the law school’s special teaching, scholarship, research, and service  objectives.

(c) A law library shall formulate and periodically update a written plan for development of the collection.

Because the standard does not specifically enumerate what schools should collect (I am definitely not advocating for such specific requirements), schools typically err on the side of maintaining very large collections. This collection plan has added greatly to the annual expenses of many law school budgets, without truly enhancing the education of the students, or the scholarly productivity of the faculty. In plain terms, we buy or subscribe to a whole bunch of stuff that we will never use. I want to make sure that the students and faculty have the materials they need, when they need them, but I am concerned about purchasing materials to have, just in case someone might need them, but probably won’t.

Our collection plans remind me of the common law Rule Against Perpetuities. The plan seems to be based upon the question: "what if the fertile octogenarian comes into the law library wishing to do research on an obscure area of the law?" We have been purchasing resources, in case that happens.

Furthermore, when we purchase print materials, we have to find a place to shelve those materials. The result is that we have established beautiful book museums, when our students and faculty rarely use those materials, and the legal profession moved away from print a decade ago. It is quaint that Standard 606 requires the core collection to be accessible in the library itself, and that we still have to report the amount of linear shelving space used by our libraries in our annual ABA questionnaires. Is that really still a relevant measure of a library collection in a non-linear, digital age?

Of course, our students, faculty, and other constituents need quiet, as well as collaborative study space, and the library serves that need well. I would argue that the square footage used to house books could be repurposed to expand greatly the space available for quiet and collaborative work.

In my opinion, it is definitely time to reevaluate the role of the law library in legal education.

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Richard, your observations about today's academic law libraries don't match my experience. I've been a law librarian since 2000, and a law library director since 2008. We're solidly within a period of contraction, budget-cutting, reliance upon electronic resources, and repurposing of space. With the possible exception of a few major research libraries, none of us collects materials that we don't expect to use.

I’m also not convinced by your argument that schools overspend on library materials because ABA rules don’t specify what to collect. My opinion, based on personal experience and dozens of conversations with colleagues, is that libraries’ collection development policies are based primarily on curricular emphases and support for faculty members' current research needs. Any marginal benefit afforded by increased volume count is outweighed by space constraints and tight budgets. The idea of buying books because the ABA standards don’t limit our impulses seems pretty silly.

I do agree with your last point, that as years go by we need fewer bookshelves. To the extent it’s not happening already, libraries should work to create new spaces where students can study, practice and collaborate.

Posted by: Simon Canick | Nov 1, 2013 11:36:44 AM

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