Law Library Autonomy: Are Law Libraries Really Different?

Academic law libraries in the United States are almost all administratively independent from their central university library systems. They are part of the law schools that they serve, rather than reporting through a wider university-level library system. This autonomy is somewhat unusual. Individual academic departments (almost?) never have libraries that operate with any level of structural autonomy. Even at the school or college level independent libraries are far less common than they are in law. Other professional schools, such as business or medical schools, are less likely to have autonomous libraries. Only around half of medical school libraries, for example, are independent of their university library systems. Among law libraries only about eight schools (around 4% of all law schools) have libraries that are administratively part of university library systems. And even in several of these cases, there is still a very great deal of day-to-day practical “autonomy” in the way that the law schools and their libraries operate.

Law librarians at all levels tend to work more closely with law faculty and law school administrators than they do with library professionals or administrators “across campus.” Several aspects of our professional lives are different from those of most other academic librarians. Many law librarians with any reference or public-services responsibilities graduated from law school and have some legal experience prior to entering law librarianship. (“Many” may now mean “most,” and certainly includes a significant majority among newer or younger cohorts in the profession.) Academic, public-services librarianship in law moved earlier, farther, and faster to define itself around teaching than have many other library subject specialties — at least in to a specific mold of classroom-connected teaching of core, and highly specific, practice skills rather than more general and programmatic support of generalized information literacy. The share of academic law librarians who teach within the law school curriculum (either as part of a first-year research and writing program, as professors of “advanced” legal research for second- or third-year students, or both) may also now be a majority. While many other academic librarians have additional educational credentials in some specific academic discipline, they are far less likely to be engaged in as focused or specific a way with the scholars in that (and, for the most part, only that) discipline.

This separateness, and the enshrinement of some aspects of it into the ABA’s standards for accreditation of law schools, has had a number of consequences for our institutions and our profession. We can feel like we are in our own silo. We do need to be careful not to allow our separateness and independence to cause us to fail to engage with a wider group of librarians, or prevents us from keeping abreast of technologies more widely implemented in campus-wide systems. But we, and legal education, have benefited from a very close integration into the academic life of our law schools. This serves everyone well and can be a model of engaged and progressive librarianship. Universities and law schools, and the libraries of each, should be actively exploring many strategies and opportunities for collaboration, mutual support, and possible joint ventures.

Libraries remain the “Laboratory” for the Verbal Artifact of Law

But any view of autonomous academic law libraries that focuses on them primarily through a lens of cost efficiency (though in many cases even these critiques are flawed on their own terms) needs to take into account that law libraries remain, for the most part, the only major supporting infrastructure for research scholarship in law. Libraries (sometimes along with our close cousin law-school IT staff) have been our only equivalents to laboratories, super-computing clusters, non-faculty research employees, and the other large and costly support operations that exist elsewhere on campus. Indeed, this is one reason that law schools are not among the more expensive academic units to operate. While interdisciplinary study stretches some “support boundaries” it has not fundamentally remade this reality about what the support of legal academia most centrally means.

Law is essentially a verbal product. The words that express law are law. A legal “primary source” is law itself. This is not really true, in quite the same way, of any other discipline. This means that the stock-in-trade of law libraries is ultimately law itself. Because libraries are engaged with securing and providing access to this material of the law, they are deeply and fundamentally connected to the endeavor of lawmaking, and thus integrated into the role and mission of their parent schools in a very different way than general academic libraries are connected to the scholarly disciplines that they support.

We have long been “it” in terms of institutional or infrastructural support for legal scholarship. Law faculty have no laboratories. They have no armies of doctoral or post-doctoral research assistants. While as a matter of intellectual history the notion of law libraries and the works archived there as the Langdellian “laboratory of the law” has been undermined by a century of jurisprudence and scholarship, it remains a valid and useful paradigm for understanding the continuing business model and role of the academic law library. We are the font and repository of the very stuff for and about which our schools exist. A continuing notion of this centrality of the library to the law school pervades the ABA accreditation standards. The word “library” appears 132 times in the newly issued (2014-2015) revision of the ABA’s accreditation standards, including 45 times in Chapter 6, devoted to the Library and Information Resources.

All good academic law libraries provide a very high level of support, and accord many privileges, to law faculty. This is, perhaps, a political vulnerability at a time when law schools are increasingly seen as a financial strain on their parent institutions rather than, as in the not-so-distant past, comparatively inexpensive yet lucrative graduate programs. The perquisites of law professors are being questioned, by administrators and by other faculty members, at many schools. But rather than just some cushy perk with which law faculty have been pampered, the traditional law library’s level of support is really reflective of the degree to which the library is our only equivalent infrastructure to the networks of labs, graduate students, and other tools relied upon in other parts of the university. Because libraries are themselves a part of the system by which legal rules are communicated and understood, law library directors have also generally been a member of their school’s faculty and contribute a special perspective within that faculty related to legal communication and the nature and implications of legal work-product and its forms.

None of this is to say that environmental changes don’t raise questions about the conventional understanding. As an increased number of law faculty have become truly multi-disciplinary scholars with serious interests and credentials outside of law, and in particular as more law faculty have become interested in doing more rigorous empirical work, law libraries can be called upon to deliver services for which university libraries have more expertise or that simply scale better to university-level delivery. But it is important to realize that the conventional practice exists for powerful historical reasons, the logic of which still holds. Indeed, there is an increasing need for law librarians and law library directors to keep their law faculties and students closely tied to changes in the production and distribution of legal resources. I think there are very strong arguments for, and could be exciting models of, stronger collaborations and joint ventures campus-wide. But the fundamental premise of the autonomous academic law library remains not only viable, but essential.

(Of course, any post touching even as indirectly as this on the continued viability of academic law school libraries should mention Jim Milles’ article, Legal Education in Crisis, and Why Law Libraries are Doomed as well as Ken Hirsh’s response, Like Mark Twain: The Death of Academic Law Libraries is an Exaggeration.)

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