I love analytics for the kernels of insight they can provide. One reason to watch web analytics is you can sometimes see what people were hoping to find. A recent visitor arrived at this blog using Bing – which does not obfuscate your search terms – so I could see what was troubling them. It was a question that is probably pretty common in law libraries: are law libraries getting rid of books if they have the space?
It’s an interesting question to unravel, though. If the only reason you keep print formats is to keep full shelves, you may be missing opportunities. Space is an asset and misuse of that space can lead to its loss.
Space Means Retention
I think I have space, therefore I have books. It’s a famous approach to librarianship outlined by that French philosopher, René Discards. It’s not a collection management approach that I’d recommend. It has a couple of drawbacks that negatively impact your operations.
Let’s say you leave a particular looseleaf on the shelf. It’s been cancelled for 10 years. Your lawyers probably aren’t using it. They probably shouldn’t be using it. It creates an impression of cruft, of lack of care for your collection. It creates an opportunity for an incautious researcher to rely on out of date information.
It also reflects on your competence. Weeding can create anxiety. I’ve worked with a number of librarians over the years who did not feel confident in deselection. How do you know what to cut? It’s a core competency for a law librarian to be able to make selection and deselection decisions.
As with so many management decisions, ask yourself what is the worst that can happen? We had one lawyer who was adamant we not toss an expensive loose leaf that he was the primary user of. We ended up weeding it, told him that we were putting it on the free-to-you shelf, and he happily carted away the lot. Problem solved.
I can do it. I’m not as good at it as my reference team, but if the world was coming to an end and I needed shelf space, you bet I could find some candidates. We use analytics too on which books move off the shelf, so that is a good place to start.
But if you’re not weeding because of fear, it’s time to come up with a plan to conquer that. I’ve seen libraries that become like terribly tangled gardens, with books piled topsy turvy, all because no weeding is happening. You don’t need to be great at it. You will make mistakes. Time and sometimes a new copy will heal all wounds. Start with the obvious items and gain confidence to handle the less obvious.
A law library that is full of old dirty books will be seen as a relic. There is a spectrum on which you can get away with keeping old books that are not used. The law firms are on the end of the spectrum where you can probably never get away with it. The academics are probably at the other end, with state supreme court libraries, where an archival approach might get less stinkeye. Courthouse and other practice-oriented collections are somewhere in betweeen.
Perceptions – or optics – matter. Law library funding and space are always something that could be given to someone else. It’s often a creeping challenge: a bit of space lost here, a bit of budget lost there. An old, unused collection will create a growing perception that more than the collection is unused.
Even if you keep the space, you may be perceived to have lost relevance.
We flipped our practice collection to our main floor a few years ago. One reason was convenience for researchers, who would go through our library and down a floor to get to this important content. Another was that it meant our traffic flow to our practice content was highly visible. If decision-makers were in the library, they would see that foot traffic. If the researchers had disappeared downstairs, they were invisible to the bean counters.
Yes, But Space
Another truism in law libraries is that if we weed the collection, we have empty shelves. And empty shelves are to our parent organizations like a salt lick is to deer. Or to put it another way, if you make space, they will come. County commissioners will see a space for staff, judges will see a new chambers or even a new courtroom. Space is the final frontier.
Deer in a field, most likely looking for space or a salt lick in a law library.
The great thing about space is that if other people can re-use it, then so can you. The important thing is to have that plan in place before you have the empty shelves. You may need to take some time – even a year – to get your decision makers or funders onboard for a space use change. Take every minute you need.
I visited a Canadian law library a couple of years back that was packed with books that were not being used by faculty or staff, by their own account. A basement full of stuff that could have been pitched. At the same time, they had only a copule of group study rooms in the entire library space. #MissedOpportunity
Know Your Audience
That was the title for a blog post I just wrote about childrens’ books and how they can help public researchers. If your researchers could benefit from:
- meeting rooms for private client meetings
- group study space for law student study groups
- collaborative space for cross-discipline teams
- quiet rooms delineated from the main library
- more open space in which to hold CLE replays or other law library community-building events
then you already have some ideas about how to re-use your space. There is some low hanging fruit and lots of benchmarks. Not sure? Ask your researchers. This can play into your advance work in preparing your funders for the change. Survey the people who use your space, give them a couple of choices, and see what they think. There are worse ways to make a decision.
It is easy to get rid of old books that the library doesn’t need. It’s easy to get rid of the shelves they sit on. It will usually cost money to fill the space with something new. You need to think about that in advance.
It does not need to cost a lot of money. At the Hamilton County Law Library (f/k/a the Cincinnati Law Library Association when I was there), we converted a space into a conference room. The room had tables but no chairs. We wanted to hold CLE activities in there and could seat about 10 people.
Fortunately, the county had a surplus function, and another department had gotten rid of 10 office chairs. The entire library staff walked down the street 2 blocks after I’d acquired the chairs – I think they may have been free since we were considered a county entity – and we literally pushed the chairs back up the street to the library.
Some space needs a wall or a door or some actual construction. There’s re-wiring to think of if you don’t have a wireless network to reach the space. Personally, I think that an option to make the new space have a permanent function staves off future attempts to take the space for non-law library reasons.
Think about dual use for the space. The CLE space we developed at Cincinnati also had a Polycom video conferencing system. The courts used it for remote witnesses to attend hearings, and lawyers used it to speak with clients in prisons. It was an opportunity to create new bonds, and more allies to defend the space.
Weeding is a hard part of law librarianship. We want to make information accessible and, depending on our experience, we may not be confident we know what information should not be accessible. It’s a skill worth learning. But don’t keep books just because you have the space. That is a decision to avoid creativity and innovation and adaptation that could benefit your law library.