Collection Development and Law Libraries

I’m not so egotistical as to suggest I have the answer to collection development policy issues in law firms. But I drafted a policy in 1999 when I was in library school and it seems that, 10 years down the road, it is worth addressing some of the factors that have changed since then. We are just finishing the creation of our first collection development policy since the early 1970s and here are some of the thoughts that have impacted our own process.

If you look at my original – a law firm collection development policy for a small firm in Wisconsin – you’ll get a sense of how far along we have come.  I had worked in a law firm library in the mid 1990s and so it seemed pretty reasonable for a firm to be able to afford enough print and electronic materials to be nearly self-sufficient.

10 Years Later

There is no question that electronic resources, especially free resources, have supplemented the typical law library. Print is under pressure for at least three reasons:  duplication, cost, and space.


A lawyer performing research is going to use electronic for any primary law materials.  Print remains woefully behind in updating, and it is no longer reasonable to wait until a publisher issues the latest court decisions or statutory updates in print.

Secondary materials – texts, looseleafs, commentary, &c. – are increasingly duplicated in online formats.  Especially in the U.S., most secondary materials from major publishers appear to be available in online databases.  To the extent you are planning your collection development policy, you should take this overlap into account.  Looseleaf costs are probably the most significant pressure point on law library print budgets, for a couple of reasons:

  • Each looseleaf release in a year is an additional cost, and in some cases, not a fixed cost since the publisher may not know how many releases will occur in a year.
  • Each looseleaf release requires staff time to properly file and maintain and, more often than you’d think, to claim for missing releases that cause a backlog.
  • Replacement costs of multi-volume binder sets are high.

Outside the U.S., at least in my experience with Canadian and other Commonwealth materials, your ability to get electronic analogs to your print secondary materials is much more hit and miss.  These materials may be unavailable in anything but a print format.


When I was at the American Bar Association, we surveyed legal publishers and found a number of interesting things.  One was that very little started in a print format.  The publication was created digitally and then print copies were created.  Another was that fewer people were purchasing print.  These two pressures mean that the publishers can print to demand, and the cost of that printing will go up as fewer people require the format.

It’s an obvious problem but there are increasing numbers of large volume publications that are no longer worth purchasing in print, particularly if they are available online.  The cost of your online license will include that publication, and won’t necessarily rise an equivalent amount if you cancel your print.

There are even publications, like print case digests, that are largely superfluous in a predominantly online primary law environment.  Even when they are not reproduced online, they can usually be cancelled without anything but psychological impact.


Law firms in particular are losing space, but many government law libraries are seeing similar pressure.  Interestingly, court law libraries often lose space to new courtrooms and judges, who add demands to the now smaller physical law library.  Both organizations are seeing the same result:  the business that needs to be done – practice of law and billing clients, administration of justice – is more important than the physical presence of the library.

The space consideration is a huge one when you are looking at where your collection will develop.  Primary legal materials are obvious print publications to eliminate where they are reliably available electronically.  Multi-volume reporter sets, digests, and the like are ideal ways to manage your space.  This is particularly true if you are focusing on a strong print secondary collection – which you should be – and can avoid cuts to your secondary print by disposing of your primary print.

Just in Time

I am not sure who coined it, but if you Google for modern collection development practice, you will quickly come across the comparison of “just in case” and “just in time”.

There was a time when the cost of print materials was sufficiently manageable that a library could acquire materials on the expectation that they might be used.  No longer.  That sort of arbitrary anticipation is expensive when you have sets that may sit on a shelf, unused.  More importantly, if you are dealing with looseleafs, someone will need to assess when to cancel updates.  Your collection development policy should plan to look at when to eliminate secondary texts, especially looseleafs, that are obviously going unused.

Law firms can model “just in time” collection perhaps better than anyone.  County, courthouse, and academic law libraries may not have the same ability to adopt just in time.  At some point in the law firm collection development, a request for materials will have a bottom-line result, perhaps recovering the cost of the publication through client service.

It is a rare law library, though, that can truly continue the “just in case” collection model.  First, it complicates many of the issues related to your print collection, particularly on costs and space.  Second, law libraries should be  gathering statistics that help them assess where they need to develop their collection.  Law firms have practice areas, academics have faculty requirements, and the rest of us have to do the best we can based on who we know is using the law library.

Usage of Print and Electronic

I would be knocked over by a feather if a majority of law librarians disputed the idea that secondary content was the best starting point for many legal research questions.  We all know how we think lawyers and others should be researching.  But what if they don’t?

Based on anecdotes from friends who work in law firms, and data collected on usage in my own libraries, lawyers are using less print than ever.  If you collect on the assumption that they will use it because it is there or because they ought to use it, you should rethink how you are collecting.

Lawyers appear to avoid print for anything related to primary law, perhaps because they’re aware of timeliness issues but also because online update tools (citators, noter-ups) are only available online.

We hope that they use secondary materials but I think usage falls in two buckets.  The first is that they use materials they know are concise and handy.  Expect them to start with single volume rules manuals, single volume texts that are topical, and then they’ll move on to multi-volume sets.  You can collect with that pattern in mind:  like a funnel, you’ll want to make sure your easy access materials are the broad end, and your more complicated (and deeper) texts are the narrower end.

Second, they will use available online secondary materials if they are simple.  Unfortunately, legal publishers are significantly behind the times in not only providing good usage data but also in helping us know how lawyers use their products.

Their secondary content is also surprisingly difficult to use online.  The ability to browse or sense where you are in the online text is often missing, and a chapter from a text is treated like a case or any other document.

My guess is that, when lawyers use online secondary content, it is for one of two reasons:

  • They were specifically looking for it, like an online journal article or a citation to a particular chapter of an online treatise
  • They stumbled upon it in their research, because the secondary resource appeared in search results.

Fortunately, usage statistics can help you to identify which of those online secondary resources are being heavily used and you can look for ways to highlight how to reach that online resource.

Collection Development in 2010

A library’s purpose will determine how it collects in 2010 just as it has determined past practice.  But collection development will need to increasingly focus on the content being collected and less on the format of the materials.  Balancing print and electronic is the most important task in developing a collection.  You may face a number of scenarios, that might include:

  • a print looseleaf is available as part of an online subscription, and you can save on updating and staff costs by cancelling the print;
  • a print looseleaf is available in softbound volumes or can be updated, “contents only”, once a year, so you can keep the print but eliminate the updating;
  • a print looseleaf is available as part of an online subscription, but the cost of adding it for every user is more expensive than keeping a single copy of the print in the library.  This scenario will require you to also look at whether, by keeping the print, you are essentially not providing the resource if the reality is that your researchers do not visit the library to use it.

How you deal with these will depend on your resources (space, budget, staff) and your organization’s purpose.

Collection development remains an intellectual activity, and has to be tailored to the organization.  My assumption is that every law library outside a university is probably facing significant budgetary and space pressure, as well as administrative or researcher pressure to cancel print and shift to electronic.  As you participate in collection development or create a policy, you’ll have to figure out how best to balance these pressures.  But look to your researchers, not to how you believe they should research.  It my be that some of our collection development challenges are created by our hopes for what people use as opposed to how lawyers actually research.