Friday, May 6, 2011

Should law libraries collaborate around print retention?

Law libraries are between a rock and a hard place these days. Patrons want their content yesterday, preferably in digital format, hopefully optimized for mobile. Deans and state legislatures want serious budget cuts and have little to no concern for print preservation. And of course, library space is at a premium, squeezing libraries from yet another direction. Law librarians recognize the need to fill patrons' information needs on a just-in-time basis and are happy to oblige. And we also acknowledge that the changing role of the library and librarians might drive us to repurpose library space. But many of us also feel a responsibility as stewards of information to be sure that the preservation of the print artifact, as cultural record, is being attended to by someone. We recognize that in the digital information era we no longer have the luxury of maintaining redundant print collections, just-in-case.

With that in mind, this week LIPA and NELLCO joined forces to hold a Summit on Print Repositories in Chicago at the Center for Research Libraries (CRL). We were hoping to bring together members of our respective Boards and some of the leading experts in the field today to help us determine whether there is a role for our organizations to facilitate and support the retention of and access to print legal materials. Margie Maes, LIPA Executive Director, and I have been exploring the idea seriously for well over a year now. We visited a number of repositories, reviewed the literature, spoke with many librarians and consortium leaders involved in print repositories, and even designed a pilot project as a starting point.

The idea for us to delve into this arena stemmed from the need we were hearing expressed from among our memberships to do something collaborative and responsive around print retention. Law libraries have attempted distributed retention efforts in the past, with libraries agreeing to retain some portion of some subset of materials (e.g. foreign primary materials from jurisdiction a, b and c, or law reviews with titles starting with a-f, etc.). Last copy agreements have also been a manifestation of this concern. These efforts, while commendable, are usually informal agreements with time limits (e.g. we'll agree to this for 5 years, then we'll revisit). Given that there is no systematic approach to the determination of what to retain in print and no enduring and binding commitment on the part of the well-intentioned participants, the result is that no library is able to discard local print holdings in reliance on the collaborative effort.

In the original pilot model envisioned for LIPA and NELLCO, the participating member libraries would engage in the establishment of a centralized, coordinated print collection, managed by a commercial library services company. We would take advantage of the administrative and processing infrastructure of the commercial facility, while retaining control and coordination on the business model and policy side of the collection (what to collect, how many copies, how to fund, etc.). The collection would be collectively owned and accessible by any participating library. Delivery would be provided digitally when practical, or the item would be shipped to the requesting library when necessary. An on-site reading room would also be available in the rare event that a researcher needed that level of access. Costs for this model would include accessioning the materials from the donating libraries, validation of the print copies to be retained, processing on site for high-density storage, ongoing storage costs, and retrieval and delivery costs. These costs would be shared by the participating libraries based upon a formula developed by the collaborative.

I believe a model like this would relieve the burden many libraries feel to retain extensive print collections. We would be able to carefully monitor use of the materials in able to determine the actual demand over time. If we were to reach the point in time when another format was perceived to provide a level of permanence and reliance that truly made the print obsolete, we could dismantle the collection.

At the meeting at CRL this week we heard from others in the field undertaking a variety of approaches. All agreed that we're in a time ripe for these types of efforts, given the forces at work. So what are your thoughts? Would this work? Why or why not? What are the biggest obstacles? The biggest opportunities?

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