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Biblio-Tech: Balancing Print and Electronic Resources

When the AmLaw Tech survey began covering law libraries in 2002, the survey focused on shrinking law library space with apocryphal titles such as "Less Is More at Law Libraries" and "Books, Books, Go Away."  The assumption was that attorneys would access electronic resources from their desktops and virtual law libraries would replace the print collections.

Good-Bye Federal Reporter, Hello
Contrary to those expectations, the AmLaw Tech 2005 survey now says:  "Don't count them out.  The digital age hasn't supplanted print.  It's complemented it."  Although 49 percent in the survey reported less shelf space now than five years ago, 71 percent reported bigger budgets in 2005 than 2004, and 75 percent reported spending more on print products in 2004 than in 2003.

Law librarians have embraced technology and slowed the growth rate of physical books in the collection, but the costs for data, no matter what form, continue to rise.  It turns out that even as the physical size shrinks, budgets, staffing and duties keep expanding.  Electronic resources require librarians to beef up the caliber of their staff.  Firms have had to increase the professional ranks of their researchers and IT specialists, while cutting traditional clerical and support staff.

A Library in Transition
This year Vinson & Elkins embarked on a massive renovation project for the home office in Houston.  Every floor will be reworked, and every employee will be moved out to "swing space" for at least four months and then back to completely new offices.

The library design focuses on compact shelving, electrical outlets, and phone and terminal jacks.  We anticipate the final product will optimize the space for all library activities:  browsing, reading, writing, using specialized equipment, teaching and interacting with groups.  It is a wonderful opportunity and an exciting time.

Our current library has had its basic design configuration for years.  It reminds me of the law libraries I worked in fresh from library school in the mid-seventies:  miles of shelving and contiguous dictation rooms, telephone booths and duplication/copy centers.  Library clerks pulled countless books from the shelves, transferred them onto book trucks and carted them off to photocopy page after page of cases cited in briefs.  The copiers ran 24/7.  When one job was done, another queued up.  Attorneys crowded the tables and carrels, and staff were constantly reshelving.  Specialized rooms were devoted to the dedicated computer terminals and printers that Lexis, and later Westlaw, required.  Lexis had "ubiquitous" red terminals dubbed UBIQs with tiny Chiclet keyboards.  The printer spat out rolls of silvery slick paper.  Researchers panicked when their print jobs jammed.

Designing for Today's Law Library
So what should a top functioning law library look like today?  How do you design a law library for the attorneys who want a gracious and book-filled library AND the lawyers skilled in online research who view the library as an elegant dusty archive?  There are basic cost and aesthetic elements to consider.

Floor Space
Law libraries are leaner and fitter.  The ideal shape for a library still appears to be a rectangular or square space, free of columns or other interior obstructions.  The single point of entry and exit of older library designs has morphed into more open configurations.  "White noise" helps create the classic hushed atmosphere which the most studious long for.  Except for casual seating, all study areas should be hard-wired for network connectivity.

Freed from the constraints of continuous rows of shelving, architects are remodeling libraries to increase access to electronic materials.  At the same time, they are creating seating groups which serve to build relationships and have spaces for collaborative learning.

Natural lighting is best, and the tricky part can be ensuring that the diffused and scattered lights which run above the shelves do not cast shadows.

I get the distinct impression that architects underestimate how much space is needed for staff, equipment, work surfaces, storage, supplies, book trucks and mail.   Architects are not, by nature, fond of clutter, and they draw tidy spaces for us all.  Research projects often require reviewing several open books at once.  And books require space.

The bulk of the hardcopy materials in traditional law libraries are Thomson West's National Reporter system.  These are sequentially numbered bound volumes containing federal and state judicial opinions.  The volumes are divided into series based on court jurisdictions such as the Supreme Court Reporter, and geographical groupings such as the Southwestern Reporter and the Atlantic Reporter.  On the shelves could be volumes of the National Reporter series dating from 1876, the first of the First Series.  There are now third series for both the Federal Reporter and the Federal Supplement, and each has 999 volumes.  The National Reporter system is perhaps the easiest to replace with digital copies, as all the cases are available electronically.  Many libraries retain the state series their attorneys refer to most and the federal case law.  To conserve shelf space, they may toss older volumes in favor of newer volumes.

Another recent candidate for "relying on electronic rather than print" has been the Digests.  These arrange cases topically - e.g., all the employment discrimination cases are listed and/or abstracted under "key numbers" or topic headings.  The American Digest goes back to 1658.  The Eleventh Decennial Digest covers the cases from 2001 to the end of this decade, as it has for decades.  Online legal research databases such as Westlaw and LexisNexis have provided alternatives to these print digests.

State and federal statutes are less easy to navigate online and having them in hardcopy should not be viewed as an extravagance.  However, they are available electronically from both government and commercial sources.

Loose-leaf services are, for the most part, available electronically.  Unlike Westlaw and Lexis, attorneys can access these without incurring a cost to their clients, and they can research topical areas such as tax, securities and environmental law from their laptops.  The library pays an annual subscription fee.  Electronic access sounds great unless you have a service which is awkward to use and difficult to navigate.  This is true of many of the services and leads to the army of "backup" loose-leaf reporters you see in the library.

Treatises are a bit trickier.  The V&E library has had an omnivorous collection policy and is known as the largest private law library in the southwest.  Multiple editions of classic titles are on the shelves, and deciding what to discard is difficult.  We'll make room for as many as possible.

In a traditional law library, the shelving takes up most of the library's footprint.  As a rule of thumb, 15 to 18 law books generally occupy three feet of linear shelving.  Librarians use this statistic to calculate how many linear feet of shelving will be required for the collection and its projected growth.  Each shelf should be about 12 inches high and at least 10 inches deep, preferably 11 or 12 inches so that it can accommodate large loose-leaf binders.  All shelves should be adjustable.  Free standing shelving units are best, as units that jut out from the walls limit the arrangement of the collection.  The trend now is to use compact shelving which must be engineered and constructed to handle the concentrated, and therefore, heavier collection.

The Library - A Welcoming Workspace
In the last 10 to 15 years technology has definitely changed how we perform legal research.  My goal is to create a welcoming workspace where attorneys have ready access to the staff and the collection as well as a place of refuge for quiet review of materials.  Its streamlined design includes shelving, and it will still contain printed materials.  Everything will be wired for laptops:  study tables, work spaces and the reference desk. 

Oh, and a gorgeous view wouldn't hurt.

About our author . . .

Susan Yancey, MLS, is the Director of Firm Libraries at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, Texas.  She has held numerous positions in the American Association of Law Libraries and Special Libraries Association to include presidencies for the Texas Chapter SLA and the Houston Area Law Librarians.  Susan can be reached at