Extras – The Law Library Downsizing Dilemma: One Librarians Perspective

Barbara Silbersack has been librarian for the Cincinnati office of Thompson, Hine and Flory since 1984. She received her Master’s in Library Science from Indiana University in 1991. Active for years in the Special Libraries Association (SLA), she was most recently Chair of the Legal Division. Barbara is also a frequent writer and speaker on various law library issues.

When I was asked to write something of practical use on the topic of downsizing a library, I realized that I had indeed been down the downsizing path a number of times. During my time at the firm, there has been a merger, a budget trimming, and, most recently, a space reduction project all of which required a reduction of the collection. From the start, I would like to say that I can only relay what happened here and would urge you to study the unique aspects of your situation. It is most important to poll your users, discuss their use patterns and needs, and do the best you can to supply them with the kind of service they have come to expect. Keep them apprised of the reasons for cuts or changes and let them help you make decisions as appropriate. But remember, whether those users are associates, paralegals, or partners, their opinions or demands can only go so far. You can’t do anything without upper management’s support. If you can’t get your plan through at that level, you may as well forget it.

First, I will list some of the categories that I did NOT eliminate from the collection. For my attorneys, most of whom use CALR, there were certain sacred cows.

1) Codes Screens are ill-equipped to show at a glance the layout of a particular chapter or section. Working with code sections in a computerized environment does not go over well with my attorneys and I agree with them. The process is too disjointed. That said, because of space constraints and certain other pressures, three sets of our state code became two. To compensate, I kept extra copies of the most popular titles. Of course, we have electronic access through Lexis and Westlaw as well as through the Internet; I believe the attorneys use these latter sources when worse comes to worse and the books are all out. I also have the paper CFR and the Federal Register back a couple of years. We haven’t quite made the transition in this administrative code arena. Although the Internet provides a good alternative for recent years, it doesn’t work a hundred percent of the time and grabbing an issue off the shelf is faster than pulling up some cite on the computer.

2) Looseleafs My attorneys correctly think that looseleafs are easier to use in print. I’m thinking of the CCH variety because we have a great many of these. When someone works in a particular practice area, they can turn to an exact code section or rule or whatever so quickly and can flip back and forth so easily that it would be insane to ditch that for some other method. We don’t have access to CCH looseleafs on CD or online. Other types of treatises, the Thomson variety, are preferred in print, but forms disks or CD versions which act as an index are helpful.

3) ALR’s This was a prime target of my own, but to my surprise, I had way too much opposition and could not get rid of this shelf hog. I will say that on a few occasions other librarians who have only the CD-ROM version had to refer to my print version when an attorney had trouble figuring out what was what on the CD. Something to keep in mind.

So, if I didn’t throw out any of the above, what did I do? The following are all examples of a series of something. You may only need a small portion of the series, so you could use one of the many brands of document delivery when a particular portion is actually needed. Otherwise you have row after row of uniform looking books with little redeeming value except maybe their good looks.

1) Periodicals Especially law reviews, reside in one shelf unit, 7 shelves high in my library. If I run out of room, I throw out the older issues or whatever works at the time (an example where you might go to your users for suggestions as to what exactly can go in this category).

2) Case reporters Are a good example of the type of material that can be pitched. Even though I have users who did not like the idea of not having, for example, all of the federal reporters in paper, we did away with a good chunk. I kept the last 20 years of F.3d, F.2d, F. Supp. I have fiche for the very oldest volumes, but there is a gap and I refuse to buy more ultrafiche to fill in that gap. We must use online services instead and that has worked fine so far.

With some sets, like the Ohio Attorney General Opinions or the NLRB Decisions, I have kept only what we cannot find online. So the shelves contain a specific finite set of books and a sign which tells the rest of the story. With the TMP’s, I bought the CD and canceled only the foreign income portion in print; I had to keep the rest. And wouldn’t you know, our CD isn’t working yet and someone needed a foreign income portfolio after I got rid of that part of the set. It’s never easy. Probably the very first time I canceled a series of something because the cost far outweighed the value was a few years ago when I got rid of CCH IRS Letter Rulings. I happened to notice the exorbitant cost and investigated the usage. And when I noticed at that time that the one IRS Publication the set contained was ridiculously out of date, that was it. I’ve never regretted that decision. Likewise, we “Shepardize” online and have been doing so for a number of years. Although I haven’t touched them, I often wonder about form books and encyclopedias…maybe in the next round.


In closing, I would say that I always keep my eye out for things to weed out, but the reason is usually outrageous cost rather than amount of space taken. I wish librarians could embrace the best of both worlds – electronic and print. While forging ahead and being leaders during the technological revolution, we should also stand up for space when this is warranted. I have noticed in my own experience that the more a person knows and understands technology, the more they value print when that is obviously the easier format to use. I understand the competitive environment in law firms and the exigencies which drive the decisions we make, but if we could step back and see that lawyers may do their best work when they are allowed to do it in a format with which they are comfortable, we may actually make progress. A balance of resources is really necessary and among those resources print is still a major player. When management speaks of efficiency, maybe we are the ones to point out that efficiency sometimes means print. As I said in the beginning, every situation is unique and I don’t envy anyone the task of juggling the economics and politics of providing information services in today’s law firm.

Posted in: Extras, Law Library Management