Monday, May 08, 2006

Libraries and Archives and Our Responsibility to the Future

On the law library directors' listserve (limited to law school directors), there has recently been a lengthy discussion about the pressures we are feeling on our budgets. Many directors are feeling forced to cut other jurisdictions' statutes and case reporters, Shepards are being slashed. The rising prices are forcing hard and painful decisions. In order to continue to supply a variety of new monographs (books, often university press titles, which are still not available on Westlaw or Lexis) to faculty and students in specialty areas, we have to look hard for areas to scrape to the bone.

In the midst of all this, Ken Svengalis published his very valuable list of price increases, showing that rates are increasing far beyond the consumer price index. (see link earlier on this same blog. He is looking specifically at Thomson West, the largest legal publisher, but this is also true of many other legal publishers. Rates are out of control. Part of this is a spiral where more buyers cancel the subscriptions to print, and so the price goes up to cover fixed costs. This is particularly annoying where Westlaw, in particular, resells the same material to a huge market without covering any of the editorial fixed costs, apparently. See earlier blog entry here, for a comment on a conversation with Kent McKeever at Columbia University.

So, with that background about the cost pressures that law libraries (and all libraries) are facing right now. Here are some thoughts about Libraries' (and Archives') responsibity to the Future:

1) Preservation in Useable Formats

We have to balance service to our individual institution in the present with that institution's long-term interests. What will our library look like in 100 years? What will our institution want or need from its library (or archives) in 100 or 200 years? This is a very hard thing to envision right now because we are adding new formats and it is hard to see the future balance. However, I KNOW that paper has endured and remained readable for centuries (given proper conservation). I also KNOW that in my brief working life, electronic media have already whipped past and become unreadable.

If we consign our legal literature to electronic media, we must be certain that we retain ownership and control over some version of it. We must also be certain that we and our successors remain committed and able to copy it securely into new formats readable by new machines, and new software. There are many, many advantages to digitizing materials, but I think we are foolish to rely on commercial vendors for the conservation of our literature. I am very interested in the consortial efforts to work on these problems, but they are still in early stages.

If we fail in this, future generations will look back at the 21st century and see a black hole in the legal literature and government documents. They will curse our gneration. And they will be right. I was so thrilled by the stand that the new National Archivist took in reviewing the removal of government documents wholesale from all types of libraries and archives in the name of national security. See Marie Newman's excellent blog entry link here.

2) Preservation of Legal Literacy

In the same way, this generation is a watershed generation for research, reading and use of legal materials. See my earlier blog entry, "New Paradigms in Law" link here. Having read a bit more, this is driven a lot by the nature of the Gen X students coming through law school now. According to materials available easily to law librarians and law profs, Gen X likes to multi-task and sees no need to go deeply into materials. If you don't explain why it's in their interest, they won't change. See, Tracy L. McGaugh, Generation X in Law School: The Dying of the Light or the Dawn of a New Day?, 9 J. Legal Writing Inst. 119 (2003). McGaugh writes in a very accessible style, supportive of the students, not ranting about their shortcomings, but suggesting how teaching methods can be modified to reach them better. I like the article best of all the materials I have looked at so far about generational differences and the effects on learning.

3) Preservation of a Scholarly Community

Call me a romantic and an optimist. I really believe the Library is a key part of the scholarly community in the law school. I am intrigued by libraries putting in coffee kiosks and talk zones. I would love to hear how these work out. I try to feature new acquisitions to our library monograph collection in several ways. We have a web page that lists new acquisitions -- it occurs to me that we might make this considerably zippier with scans of handsome book jackets.

We now leave some book jackets on the books, which was never done in the past. This idea was suggested to me by Jim Heller when he visited here. It's a great idea. We have a shelf display of new books near the entry of the library, near groupings of soft seatings. We now turn some of the books with the jackets so the jackets show, like the book stores do.

The jackets that are removed are used in displays on bulletin boards around the library. The idea behind all this is to alert students (and faculty) to new books as they arrive, so they might think about them when considering a topic for research. Of course, all these materials are cataloged and searchable in the OPAC. But we hope to spark interest in the users. I do see faculty and students perusing the shelves and bulletin boards, and get comments from faculty colleagues.

In the past, I participated in a faculty book group. For a while I ran it. Sadly, it fell apart as more participants felt they had no time to read for pleasure. Perhaps we can start it up and read some central legal scholarship and discuss that. I have truly felt myself that I don't have time to do anything but my own work, so I do understand this. Pressures of tenure and pressures of trying to work productively and still have a family life are pretty intense! But I like the idea of having a brown bag to discuss a legal scholar. Hmmm.

The decoration is a painting by a minor Dutch master, Gerbrand Van den Eeckhout. He "was a Dutch painter of portraits, religious subjects and genre, active in Amsterdam. He was a friend and favourite pupil of Rembrandt and a close imitator of his style." From a very nice website, which offers the paintings, short biographies and information on painting styles. I chose this painting to illustrate the essay because it uses books to denote that the subject is a scholar. There is nothing remarkable about the man that tells you otherwise that he is a man of deep learning, such as one might readily imagine from the Rembrandt painting in near time, The Rabbi, who coincidentally, also holds a book. The Rabbi is a much finer portrait, in fact. But the Rabbi looks like a man of wisdom and scholarly demeanor even without his book. This man requires the books around him to tell you: This is a scholar. Think about that. Books are the imprimatur of the scholar and have been for centuries. This man is sitting in a library, proving he is a scholar.

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