The Small Law Library Catalog, Revisited

One benefit of blogging for a long time is the chance to revisit topics. I looked at options for small law library catalogs in 2010 and it was a mixture but was heavily weighted towards standalone and offline options. Like everything impacted by the cloud, there are a wide variety of low cost and free web catalog options to improve access to a law library collection.

To be frank, this wasn’t top of mind. My current library is on the small end of large collections, so we run a large catalog / integrated library system. To a certain extent, it’s a safe bet: as the saying goes, no-one was ever fired for buying [IBM | Microsoft | &c]. Common big names include Innovative Interfaces, Ex Libris, and Sirsi Dynix. You can get an ILS with a side order of discovery with any of them.  [For the curious, this May 1st American Libraries post by Marshall Breeding popped up in my feed, where he takes a look at a lot of these vendors.]

There’s also what I think of as the middle tier, which includes Lucidea‘s options like Sydney and inMagic, Soutron, and Sirsi’s EOS acquisition. I’ve either used or seen law libraries use all of those. I expect even one of OCLC’s options would work, if it’s allowed in your country.

The open source market has matured and I think a library our size would seriously look at Koha or Evergreen if we hit a point where we needed a change. It’s a bit Goldilocks: we’re small in the big ILS market and big in the next tier down. There’s even a great software selection toolkit for libraries considering open source. While funding pressure could cause us to look for a new catalog, lack of internal technical support makes going open source challenging, although there are hosts for that too.

This resource issue is just one of the factors that all law libraries interested in any technology need to juggle. You can license a catalog that is hosted but that often comes with its own up front and ongoing costs: you switch staff for dollars.

The contrast between the free cloud versions now available and the DIY approach I looked at in 2010 is striking. I don’t think the underlying premise is different, though: law libraries want to manage collection and improve access to it, but may not have the interest or resources to pay the going freight.

A Sampler of Catalogs

The whole impetus for this second look was when I came across a Kansas courthouse law library’s catalog on Collectorz. It’s a sub-1000 title collection and Collectorz, a Netherlands-based company, offers a $35 annual subscription for a web-enabled collection.

Screenshot listing Lycoming County (KS) books on e-discovery
E-discovery titles in the Lycoming County (KS) law library collection.

It’s a good example of how a home-, consumer-oriented tool will work in some locations. If you don’t circulate books, there’s no need for a user management or circulation module. MARC support is also not necessary (it’s dead, right?) and so-called easy MARC options are common in major ILS vendor packages. The ability to barcode scan a book to add it is also a common feature in consumer- and library-focused options.

Librarything is another option for this end of the market. Here’s a Washington courthouse law library with a sub-500 title collection. Librarything provides a search interface that feels more traditional library-ish.

Screenshot of Librarything search page for Whatcom County (WA) Law Library
Whatcom County (WA) Law Library search interface on their Librarything collection.

What perhaps sets Librarything apart from other consumer-oriented tools, beause it is one, is that it also specifically focuses on library tools, even offering barcode stickers. Like Collectorz, you can scan to add books. The cost is $25 for a lifetime membership, with a cap of 20,000 titles.

There are other options, like Librarika, which has a free, ad-driven option for collections under 2,000 titles. And once you’re into the paying options, you can find a whole bunch that straddle the consumer line but charge $600 or more a year to host a library catalog.

Why Do I Need a Catalog?

You’ll notice that none of them offers a good circulation option until you get to Librarika. That was one of the nice off-line features of products like Readerware for Libraries. On the other hand, a small collection may be able to come up with an easy solution (private notes on a book record, a separate spreadsheet) that allows for tracking what is likely a small user population.

Using an online, web-based catalog rather than an offline tool allows law library users to access it the way they access so many other things. Not by walking to a library, but by opening a web browser. If law library users rely on more than one source – a courthouse law library and a firm collection, or an academic library and a courthouse library – being able to search them all at once, remotely, can be a service.

Courthouse law libraries can expose their collection of print materials, as well as key online documents (using the easy MARC version of the 856 field, which is the only field I remember), to anyone, anywhere. Small law firms or legal aid organizations could access the collection with user accounts to keep the information private, because not all work is done in the office.