One tension in law libraries is comprehensiveness. Do we collect or license access to all of the information that our researchers need? The model has shifted, from just in case collection to just in time. It’s an acceptance of gaps. But could we push the envelope further and create bigger gaps without impacting research quality?

I went to a thrift shop over the weekend. It’s Halloween costume season and I needed some oddments. It’s also an opportunity to see what LPs and CDs have been donated. I’m not a big music streamer – no Spotify account – and while I use Freegal through my public library, I tend to download an album, not a song here and there.

Some of that is a completionist mentality. Since I tend to listen to music as albums rather than as a playlist of parts, getting one song doesn’t make sense to me. It’s also why, when there are LPs and CDs selling cheap, I’m curious. In this case, I did really well: a couple of old REM albums I’d discarded my own copies of years ago, a Lauryn Hill, a Bizet. It was a good day at Value Village.

One album in particular had been on my radar for some time. It’s not available for free download or streaming, even though it has one very popular song on it. I expect it’s a licensing issue. Buying the CD with the song on it was about the same as buying 1.5 songs on iTunes. Completely worth it.

But it returned me to the theme of content gaps. I’d touched on this – also with music – from the perspective of the researcher not knowing what isn’t there. Physical space is limited so physical containers are discarded or out of sight in order to allow new containers to be acquired. Digital access creates a pseudo completeness because, as Jocasta Nu says, “if an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist.” Worst. Librarian. Ever.

Comprehensive Doesn’t Exist

Legal publishers sell comprehensivity but it doesn’t really exist. The dictionary definition uses the word complete. Any database that has a scope note that’s different from the corpus life isn’t comprehensive. Unless you align with Miracle Max, and, to paraphrase him, your collection is mostly complete.

But researchers don’t know what they don’t know. Even if they interact with a law librarian, they may not know to ask and a reference interview may not tease it out. Researchers without access to a librarian are on their own.

We can assume that legal professionals probably remember what they learned in legal research classes. If they stay within their practice areas, they’ll probably have an additional set of resources they use. But there’s a point at which their knowledge ends, whether it’s not worth desiring more or it’s not achievable.

Pretty much every law librarian will have told a researcher about something that researcher didn’t know existed. That’s why we’re the information experts. It’s something to be proud of but it’s also functional.

That means there’s probably a knowledge gap. Or lacuna, as Canadian lawyers will have it (which means gap). And it’s a fair assumption that they may not know the entirety of resources they might benefit from accessing. So that gap may not be visible.

Like a hollow tube in the middle of a tree. You can’t see it when you walk through the forest, but it’s still there.

But Does it Matter?

A law library can’t collect everything. Even if it collects everything as it emerges, it can’t keep all of that collected. We weed for a reason. We make format choices. New, better, shinier stuff comes out. Budgets are depleted or cut. Laws change. Publishers stop updating content and so there’s nothing for us to collect even though information is still flowing.

Information will be unavailable to a researcher. How much will depend on lots of variables:

  • money to acquire
  • staff to acquire and discard
  • staff to analyze the collection (I expect very little recurring analysis is done on monolith legal publisher licensed access, even though it does change, if only because what are you going to do, cancel?)
  • collection management philosophy (I’ve seen some libraries that keep everything, whether because of volume count, territorial integrity, it’s not clear)
  • researcher and librarian skill to access
  • &c.

But does the missing information matter, particularly if neither the researcher nor the librarian is able to access it (license, lack of knowledge, inaccessible because discarded, etc.)?

Let me shift back to music. If the only way you can get a particular song or album is to find a physical copy from the 500 remaining worldwide, what is the cost to acquire to the actual value received? And would you do it if you’re only going to play the album 1 time?

I’ve blogged before about good enough research. I don’t think most lawyers need to be very good at legal research, and that they all have an experiential plateau that suits their risk tolerance. Research needs to be good enough but for most lawyers and most client matters it is not going to be definitive in whether their client is or isn’t successful; it’s just one variable.

I’m not sure this approach would work in all disciplines. We accept it with fiction. We probably wouldn’t accept it with medicine (although there are hard limits on indexed content in some cases) in case something presenting as unique isn’t.

Common law precedent means that we’re rarely looking at just an individual leaf. That leaf is usually on the tree of precedent. That interconnectedness – twig, branch, limb, trunk – means that information may not be as isolated as in other disciplines.

Which makes me think that collection development and comprehensivity may be a lot less important than tool access and capability. Again, with music. Have you ever used Music-Map? It’s a relational search – visual, like those Aughties Flash-based integrated library systems – that shows you music similar to your search term. Or It’s a site where you can find music sampled in other music.

Is It better for me to know all of the composers who are (group think, folksonomically) similar to Gustav Mahler? Or better to know his entire list of works? The latter doesn’t tell me who copied him, who was a peer, who influenced him. It shows me the tree trunk but not what’s inside.

I’m starting to lean harder on the idea – and it’s just an idea – that law libraries could get a lot looser on collection development (which has financial implications) and a lot tighter on tool knowledge and knowledge transference. It would enable a shifting or reallocation of resources that could potentially impact our reach beyond general legal research information literacy.