When an Operational Review Means Library Cuts

The wheel turns and another law library operational review is announced.  There is no particular reason an operational review should have a negative connotation.  In its most basic form, it should be an opportunity to identify strengths and weaknesses in library operations and to improve both.  Unfortunately, recent history in Nova Scotia, Manitoba, British Columbia, and other law library systems has caused the term operational review to be a euphemism for cost-reductions.

It is disappointing because it means there has been a breakdown of communication at some level.  These reviews appear to be precipitated by funding cuts.  When that happens, it may be that the law library has not been successful at explaining the value gained by spending that funding on law libraries and legal information access.

Or the funder may not understand that, in a period when law libraries are experiencing double digit percentage cost increases, that a funding cut can’t be absorbed without a parallel service cut.  Fewer dollars mean fewer people and fewer resources.

In some cases, it may reflect that law libraries have become so expert at doing more with less that the funders think they can continue to do so.  This is exacerbated by the reduction in available funding sources for law libraries.  Those serving the public are often tapping into government funding, which has higher priority objects (like law enforcement, health and welfare, education) than courthouse libraries.

Most law libraries have one or two funding sources.  This may include the revenue that they can generate through ancillary services like photocopying, document delivery, and the like.  Some offer membership-based premium services for legal professionals, but those dues are under a lot of price sensitivity when the library makes so much freely available.  When a review happens in response to a funding cut, or because one is planned, it is unlikely that the library will have an alternate source of revenue to make up the loss.

We may have missed the window of opportunity – perhaps repeatedly – to make the changes necessary so that funding cuts either are averted or part of a strategic approach to delivering legal information.  Courthouse law libraries that merge with public libraries, for example, not only enable better service but use public dollars more sensibly.  Services that focus less on the physical space and more on getting the information to the researcher can, when proactively implemented, show the sort of fiduciary concern law librarians need to display.

Unfortunately, the wheel continues to turn, throwing up review after review leading to cut after cut.  When the only major change is to eliminate things, at some point, there is little left to review strategically.  Libraries can find themselves on starvation rations, subsisting on the funding available without making the changes necessary for long term survival.

At some point, as in Vermont, it may mean that there is so little to save, it’s easier to close the library and eliminate the service.  Perversely, the funder will be able to keep the books but will lose the people who can generally make the information in them accessible.  And the funder down the road, who sees others cut their law libraries back, may see an opportunity to begin their own operational review.