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The Law School Laboratory

As a librarian, I’ve been trying to avoid talking about libraries in this column. Mainly because there is already a legal information column on Slaw and I wanted to keep talking about “true” law school issues.

Then I realized I was being an idiot and part of the problem that plagues libraries.

What sparked my realization was reading a couple of closely timed items. Item the first was a article on Above the Law about Washington & Lee School of Law’s Strategic Transition Plan. In reference to the plan’s “Operating budgets will be reduced by 10 percent in 2015-16 with the exception of the library budget, which will grow by 2 percent.” the Above the Law columnist wrote:

“Students? Get by with less. Institution that no one uses anymore? Here’s your raise!!! … So… law school takes a tumble in U.S. News rankings, and one of the easiest investments it can make is throwing more money at the obsolete library”

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And a law professor blogged in reference to W&L’s library budget increase:

“UCLA’s law library is fabulous and our reference librarians are a wonderful resource. But I haven’t set foot in it for years. Almost [all] of my research is done online, supplemented by office copies of a few books. If we got rid of the books tomorrow neither my teaching nor my research would take a major hit (probably not even a minor one).

Granted, the law school library can be a useful study hall for the students, but that doesn’t mean that their budgets should be going up while everything else is getting slashed.”

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And then finally, the US News and World Report annual law school rankings. I decided to look at their methodology, especially with regards to how the library figures into the calculations. Imagine my surprise when they only counted titles and volumes contained by the library and that this only accounted for .75% of a school’s total score.

.75%.

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Why is it that everyone loves libraries and librarians, but no one seems to care if we are kept around anymore? Also, why does everyone think libraries are just books? Or a study hall?

Part of the problem does lie with librarians. We’re a service profession and are sometimes loathe to toot our own horns, especially to the law faculty that we serve. I mean, the fact that I had to debate with myself whether or not to even write this column when I generally don’t hold my tongue on many topics speaks to that. Our goal is to make the research process for law professors as smooth and seamless as possible – not to interrupt the flow and correct them when they think of subscription databases like Westlaw or Lexis as “The Internet” or that they are free.

But I do also put part of the blame on those with the mistaken ideas. It’s 2015. If you consider a major portion of your job to be scholarship, you should have a basic understanding of the tools of your trade.

Some basic facts:

  • While, in the above example, the library budget is increasing by 2%, I can almost guarantee that its material costs are going up 10% or more. Annually.
  • The subscription databases that are “replacing libraries” are actually paid for from the library budget. They are not a competitor to the library, but rather they are a digital branch of it.
  • Yes, even books are on the databases. But not all are. Also, depending on the agreement with the database vendors, they may or may not be accessible to members of the public. As many academic law libraries are open to the public and are a filler of the Access to Justice, it’s important that the library has resources available to them.
  • Everything is not on the Internet. Not even close.

It’s cliché at this point to say that Legal Education is in a time of upheaval and change. There are calls on all sides to create practice ready attorneys or at least more real world skills training. Guess what? Your law school is already doing this. Yes, the legal research and writing faculty (who are often librarians) at your school has been using the law school library as a practice laboratory to give students the real world skills they need. As we are all struggling to find new and innovative techniques to improve legal education, we should remember that we all have a laboratory filled with all the tools that our students will use in their practice that we can utilize in our endeavors.


 

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