20 April 2014

Deselection, again

Originally published in ALLUNY Newsletter (39.1),

In my last column, I wrote about the law library as a social space.  Before that was even published, I got word that not only would we not be getting comfortable chairs, we would be moving the library to a much smaller space.  This is a drastic, but reasonable, change for our firm.

A law firm library is unlike other law libraries.  We collect for a specific purpose—to support the practices of our attorneys—rather than in a comprehensive way.  History does matter, but not much: for what isn’t available through our database subscriptions, we rely on others, with more archival missions, to collect.  And finally, we are subject to the profit motive.  This isn’t to suggest that the library is a profit center, but we must be mindful that our space costs money, our books cost money, multiple copies of books costs even more money, and our databases allow for billing back usage costs to clients.

My job as a private law firm librarian is to provide timely access to accurate information in the most convenient, cost-effective way possible.  With multiple offices across several states, that means databases.  They are updated immediately, allow multiple concurrent users, and don’t require multiple copies for each office.

So the management committee has determined that our space can be better utilized as additional offices and conference rooms.  Our new space would be approximately one-third the current arrangement, and this would allow far fewer materials to be shelved.  I needed to begin culling my collection immediately.

Some of the decisions were easy.  Most of the deselected items hadn’t circulated for at least five years, and many hadn’t been updated in that time.  Large sets, like the NYCRR, which 1) cost a lot to maintain, 2) take lots of space, 3) are available for free online, and 4) can never be truly current, were among the first to go—along with shelves and shelves of New York case reporters that were housed in the basement.  Old hornbooks, outdated treatises, and back issues of periodicals were next.  The US Code and FCR, both available from the GPO website, freed another full run of shelves.  Digests, the NY Juror 2d, and a second set of McKinney’s Consolidated Laws also disappeared.  All told, the books we discarded left a stack of circulation cards nearly six inches high.

What did we keep?  Practice materials, mostly. Treatises, formbooks, and specialized case reporters from CCH. Historical material that is otherwise not online, like our Session Laws, Attorney General opinions, and Comptroller opinions collections. Local laws. Titles directly related to our current practice areas, or with particular enduring value. And some not available from our database provider because they’re published by the other vendor.

I am a librarian by trade, and an archivist by nature.  Tossing thousands of dollars into a dumpster is not my idea of fun, but I am better positioned to make these choices than anyone else in the firm.  I  know what materials we have online; I know what materials my attorneys actually use (as opposed to what they SAY they use); I know that keeping dated materials on the shelf so the shelf looks full will tempt one of them to use it without checking its currency, leaving him open to malpractice.  Clearing these shelves is an extinction event: the books are gone, and there is no bringing them back. Our library is now, of necessity, a lean, mean, internet using system, and our attorneys will need to adjust. On a more positive note, though, all that free shelf space has allowed me to start a DVD lending collection—so even in a reduced space, more people have reason to visit the new library.