Something Borrowed

Policies are like laws, for me.  It’s not so much that the intent is to curb or encourage behavior, but to let someone know about a situation or process without having to engage in trial and error.  That was the main reason behind getting a collection development policy at each of the last two law libraries I was in.  Policies can help explain what you’re doing, and give staff and library customers some guidelines on what’s being done.

It surprises me sometimes to think about organizations that don’t have policies around their collections.  I was speaking to a governance board over the weekend about their large and expensive collection.  They had discovered that someone had been borrowing – circulating – some of the more costly pieces.  And it was this that had flagged that they had no policy around circulation, even though they had, as a group, approved a temporary loan here or there in the past.

When I’ve spoken to law librarians about collection development policies, there have sometimes been rejections of the idea because of the constraints it puts on the library.  And while I can see that position, it doesn’t have to be that way.  If a law library takes §VI (A) (1) and selections from §VII of the County Public Law Library Standards, you’ve got the makings of a pretty decent policy that merely states what the law library should be doing anyway.  It’s not enough though because there are still grey areas.  I’d include:

  • explain what gets weeded, how and when.  Understand if the county or someone else owns the books.
  • explain how you handle donations, so that a deceased lawyer’s family that makes a donation doesn’t get surprised when you weed or re-sell those books.

As far as I know, all law libraries have some oversight organization.  Public law libraries typically have a board, law firms may have a committee or directing lawyer, academic law libraries are part of law schools.  Explaining to them what you are – and aren’t – collecting can help them to understand how you are spending money, and can clarify their expectations of what the law library is doing.

Like most policies, you should revisit them to update them if necessary, and if necessary, re-acquire approval of the oversight group.

The other benefit of a policy is to have the discussion among the library staff and, potentially, the library’s customers, about what the library is doing.  That’s where a board, realizing that pieces of their collection are circulating and that they have no policy, can get a handle on what they want to have happen.

Circulation is nice if you can manage it.  Public libraries probably couldn’t exist without it.  Law libraries of any type can probably skate pretty close to eliminating it, to the extent their customers use electronic resources or can supplement with document delivery.  This board immediately has a spectrum of choices:

  • prohibit all circulation.
  • prohibit all circulation except that approved by the Board.
  • allow all circulation, but create a process that is regular and available to any customer, which may include the Board or a designated participant.

This isn’t a typical collection, so the choices aren’t typical either.  The items that might circulate are insured, tend to be individually expensive but not necessarily hard to replace, and are usually returned to the collection within a day.

The easy choice is to ban all circulation.  That’s a policy decision.  We used to loan copies of our books to the judges in the courthouse we share with them.  But since our collection budget has dropped and we no longer carry second copies of books, we no longer circulate anything.  The rationale underlying that policy is that:

  • we can’t afford duplicate books because our budget has dropped and we have decided to have broader coverage than multiple copies;
  • the people borrowing the books are not licensees contributing to the cost of the collection, although we have space without rent;
  • we can’t loan books for which we have only one copy, because they are in use in the library;
  • we can document deliver elements of books or the customer can come (or send someone) to photocopy or scan documents themselves.

Have the policy.  Make sure staff understand not only that circulating is prohibited, but why.  The policy should be simple enough to explain to anyone who asks.  The policy’s application should be uniform.  Public and academic law libraries may be sued for applying a policy in a way that can be perceived to be non-uniform.  So every policy may have a bit of training to go along with it.

My recommendation to this Board?  The circulation is not going to impact internal customers; the items are not being used at the time they’re being loaned.  Lending the items creates goodwill and there is a tradition of sharing these items, even though it was much more sporadic before.  But the organization’s insurance may not cover them if they are loaned.  The board should create a policy that items should only circulate:

  • where the Board has approved it and where the recipient has signed an understanding that they are responsible for replacement costs for any wear, tear, theft, or other damage;
  • that the staff responsible for circulation relay any requests to the Board for approval;
  • the the staff be responsible for getting the items back or notifying the Board.

Sound familiar?  It’s just like a library card for a select, but not necessarily rare, collection.  Libraries have been doing this for a long time but this organization hadn’t ever had that mindset.  The policy isn’t magic, or novel, or a constraint on the organization’s ability to operate.  It just clarifies what everyone’s role and expectations are in relation to the collection.

There’s no question you can overdo policies and spend more time on the creating and updating than in realizing the benefits of a policy.  But if you find that there is an area where a policy needs to be created – because the law library has run into this sort of issue, or sees other law libraries in the same position having issues and want to avoid them – it can be a useful way for staff to better understand what the law library is doing, and for oversight to better understand why.