The Future of Law Libraries
Via Brian Leiter, I read this post on a controversy at Tulane’s Law Library. The Law Librarian Blog, after detailing recent staff and policy shifts, wonders whether the University administration is using Katrina as an excuse to do away with an independent academic law library:
So my question is do the actions at Tulane reasonably represent a sub rasa determination by relevant powers to subsume the law library into the operations of the University library, demoting it from an independent entity and transforming it into a subordinated department? The recent spate of firings looks to be designed to preshape the structure of the law library for insertion into the main library’s organization.
If this is true, I wonder whether Tulane would defend itself by arguing that in light of recent developments, there is less of a need for an independent law library than there used to be. Or, more provocatively, “Law Libraries. Huh. What are they good for?”
On the technological front, as underscored by this controversy about the (new) Drexel Law library (see here and here for details), some seem to believe that the internet has reduced the importance of having a law library to bind professionals to the school, and keep the school mindful of the Bar’s needs. On the academic front, I suppose that some might think that the increasing theoretical bent of the law school faculty experience, marked by changing standards for hiring and tenure, might suggest a need for a different type of scholarly support.
These arguments feel weak to me. In part, I think that the effect on technology on legal practice is overstated. Most practitioners, even those with unlimited access to Westlaw, and all scholars, need access to a good book collection to be minimally competent at their jobs. Physical law libraries also subsidize small-firm practitioners, which to my mind is to the good. Putting aside the cost of legal services, small-firms are better places to work; they increase civility in the Bar and decrease litigious behavior; and they provide the bulk of legal services to the poor.
On the academic front, there seem to be good reasons to support a federalized approach to university administration, even if we are all eventually going to be required to get PhDs. Principally, I’d be worried that University-controlled libraries would discount the value of student-edited journals, which are a necessary, unique, and valuable aspect of legal education.
Ultimately, these issues are linked inextricably to the ABA’s burdensome accreditation requirements for new law libraries. As the regs make clear, to be accredited, a school must have a law library that is somewhat independent from the University, and which possesses a pretty significant “core collection” (see here at interpretation 606-5).
As has been observed elsewhere at length, the accreditation requirements are a barrier to entry raising the cost of legal education and (ultimately) legal services. Do the civic benefits (which I also alluded to here) of law libraries exceed the burden of the accreditation requirements? I think so, but it may be that Tulane and (perhaps?) Drexel disagree.