Vandals in the (Inner) Temple

There was a minor explosion in the law library world when a well known UK blogger warned that “vandalism in management” would soon devastate the physical space of the Inner Temple Law Library.  The board of directors for the Inner Temple will be considering 3 plans in October 2015 that will impact the law library.  Of the three, two will involve substantial collection access changes and loss of space.  Not surprisingly, there has been a negative reaction to these suggested changes.

Since I have worked in two older and historically distinguished law libraries, I understand the emotional response.  In fact, one thing that is consistent throughout the postings and petition responses I’ve seen is the concern about the space:

The Inner Temple has one of the loveliest working libraries in the Commonwealth.  Its aspect, its views, its books, their bindings, its tables

A good law library is a masterpiece of design and utility; it not only stores the books but allows lawyers – practitioners and students – to use the books well.

… to get rid of five of its rooms, together with its fine gallery; to install a depressing plaster ceiling to lour over what remains; to take away half the spaces for readers to sit and work, and to remove 25,000 books.

Law Libraries and Space

I have touched on this before.  A law library’s ability to deliver legal information does not require the same amount of space it needed in 1900 or, in the case of the Inner Temple, in 1440.  Times change and needs change.  Whether or not the Inner Temple has the needs for all 40,000 of its books to be present in its space or whether it can provide acceptable access with 15,000 on site and 25,000 located elsewhere isn’t clear.

What does not seem to be receiving much discussion is the library review the Inner Temple law library underwent in 2012 and 2013.  It is an interesting set of documents, including a strategic review and a survey, and describes some common themes among subscription or membership-based law libraries:

  • the physical space of the law library is not heavily used by the entire membership.  In the case of the Inner Temple, over half the respondents to its survey rarely or never used the library.  And as the librarians commented to me on Twitter, the bar is spread out much further than it used to me.  Metropolitan subscription law libraries face the same dilemma, as lawyers move to suburbs and beyond.  Boston’s Social Law Library operates state-wide and Jenkins in Philadelphia operates nationally in the U.S.
    Challenge:  how do you provide services costing over  £1 million for the relatively small group that uses it?
  • Foot traffic in the library is low.  Including staff, the average in 2013 of daily visitors is about 150 per day.  The library is open 7 hours a day, 5 days a week.  The library has almost 100 seats (and may drop to half that under two of the proposed plans).  Since I have worked in similar libraries, I’m familiar with the different approaches lawyers have when going to a courthouse law library.  Some sit and spend time; others grab something off the shelf, look at it, and leave.
    Challenge:  how do you use your space differently when you will only rarely have a full house of researchers at tables?
  • Money is an issue.  The strategic plan notes the problem, and the library staff respond with the cuts they are making.  The reality for all law libraries is that the cost of maintaining a current print collection is outstripping the budget, regardless of the source: governmental, regulator, membership association, academic organization.

The Inner Temple law library has considered merging with another Temple library.  It also has a collection sharing agreement, where it maintains part of a collection that is accessible to members of the Middle Temple, Gray’s Inn, and Lincoln’s Inn.  Each of those bodies holds part of the collection as well.

Those sorts of arrangements are difficult.  Unless there is consistent, stable funding, the collection obligation can become a millstone around the law library’s neck.  Additionally, maintaining the breadth of collection is probably not necessary from a strategic perspective.  It is most advantageous for those who are concerned about the historic perspective.  Some view the Temple and Inn libraries as a last resort copy (I’m not clear if BL means Bodleian or British Library):

I’ve written elsewhere about the ability of membership law libraries to survive on their own funding alone.  As much as these significant law libraries – and I include the Great Library in Toronto among these – want to be seen as the defenders of the last copies, they will not have the ability to keep those collections and preserve them properly.

All in all, when I read through the Project Pegasus plans, the law library’s strategic review and online survey, and without the emotion of an Inner Temple user, I didn’t see what all the fuss was about.  There seems to be a financial benefit to making the changes envisioned in proposals 1.5 (??) and 2 and, as a law library director, I can see operational changes that would still enable access to the 40,000 items as well as options to maximize the remaining research space.

Do You Know What You’re Doing

Inspector Finch asks "Do you have any idea what you're doing?" as Dascombe disarms the bomb in V for Vendetta.
Inspector Finch asks “Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” as Dascombe disarms the bomb in V for Vendetta.

The initial reaction I had to the uproar was that the law library’s supporters were focusing on the wrong thing.  There’s been no clear message that the services that the law librarians provide are meaningful, nor that any part of the collection other than the books is relevant.  The law librarians themselves have championed their remote tools – document delivery and the like – but where are the barristers expounding on their value?

The difficulty with tying a law library’s future to its space is that the space’s use will continue to diminish over time.  In some ways, it should, as the law library delivers more information to where the lawyer is practicing law.  Even with books, that can be housed off site and couriered to remote locations or scanned and sent in pieces, there are options for law libraries to manage space challenges.  But that requires the library to see itself as its people and its services.  And it requires its users and champions to do the same.

More problematic from what I read were the things that the Project Pegasus reports apparently glossed over.  For example, things like the annual cost of maintaining a collection of 25,000 books offsite in downtown London and related retrieval costs.  The Inner Temple library’s committee said it this way in its submission (which ALSO unfortunately starts off with a focus on how wonderful the space is):

Schemes 1.5 and 2 fly in the face of the conclusions and recommendations in both the SRG Report and the Library Review. These were detailed evidence-based reports. The Library Review was the product of a year’s work. The SRG Report was produced after wide-ranging consultation with external experts from many fields relevant to the issues now being considered. We find it alarming and inexplicable that the current proposals take no account of either report, which seem to have been effectively disregarded.

Blog posts in opposition to the plans have said that Project Pegasus’s plans were developed without a business case to support the massive expenditure would be offset by future rentals of the auditorium and training space.  All in all, it sounds like the Project Pegasus plans need some additional work.

Whenever an operational review comes along, it seems to be driven by financial concerns rather than a truly strategic view to the future of the law library.  The initial reaction tends to focus on saving the status quo – space, physical collection – and this binary approach misses opportunities to talk about delivering information differently.  It is hard to champion new models when you’re being asked to only consider cuts and losses.

The Inner Temple law library faces significant possible changes, depending on the vote in October.  I don’t think the groundswell of support has appeared yet, with fewer than 1,200 signatures on September 18, less than a month from the vote.  On the face of it, based on their operational review and reports, it doesn’t strike me as dire as the vandalism and destruction that others are making it out to be.  More problematic is that the changes may be made without a solid business case to support them.  That would end up damaging both the library and the organization’s ability to continue to maintain it.

Update:  The Inner Temple board decided to eliminate 60% of the library’s space in order to adapt to what they apparently perceive to be educational opportunities.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.