Report to Law Library Directors on Upcoming Changes in the ABA Questionnaires (Jun. 30, 2008)

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We want to let you know of upcoming changes in the ABA Annual Questionnaire. First, we'll briefly report the changes and then provide you with a longer explanation.

  • The Questionnaire to be completed this fall will ask us to report the number of electronic titles included in the library's online catalog. These may include purchased titles, licensed titles or free titles that the library has identified as important enough to catalog.
  • The upcoming questionnaire will be the last annual questionnaire asking for volume or title counts. (The elimination for the volume count was announced last year.)
  • Future questionnaires will continue to request data on dollars spent on print and non-print titles including electronic titles.
  • The Site Evaluation Questionnaire will have a greatly expanded section on library services. These questions will need to be developed.

For several years the ABA Law Libraries Committee has attempted to incorporate electronic titles into the ABA's annual questionnaire in a meaningful way. Committees chaired by Judith Wright, Rita Reusch and Paul George have all examined this issue. The most recent committee has reported to the ABA's Questionnaire Committee that we are unable to identify a meaningful and consistent way to count electronic titles (except for reporting of dollars spent).

The issues fall into two broad categories: what electronic titles should we count, and how do we identify the number to report in the count? Both of these present numerous questions which the past committees have attempted to resolve.


The “What to Count” Issue:

For the question of what titles to count, the issues are whether to count what is accessible, what is licensed, or only those titles that are purchased. How do joint purchases with a campus library figure into the equation? How does one even define “ownership” in an electronic age?

Do we count electronic titles that were jointly purchased by the law school library and the university library? So far, the Committee has said yes, stating that the payment must be “substantial.” But is this ultimately fair to the law library that has the same information that another law library partially purchased, particularly when people use the numbers to define the quality of a library's collection? Some universities fund joint purchases through a common pool of funds to which all campus libraries contribute. Does a library then count titles that have no use to the law school community?

A related question is whether we count any electronic resources available through a law library computer, including those in another campus library, when the library has made no financial contribution at all. From the student's perspective, the answer is yes. Access is access. But the numbers, assuming they could be identified, become extraordinarily meaningless with the possibility that a law school affiliated with a large research library would be able to count hundreds of thousands of titles that are available but are not useful, even in an age of expanding cross-disciplinary law school curricula.

Should we count licensed titles? Here, we have said yes. The definition of ownership is increasingly less meaningful and an “ownership” requirement only seems to result in vendors creating new definitions (and higher prices) to enable some libraries to count what others have not “purchased” but have only licensed.

Should we count free databases or websites that the library has cataloged? For now, the Committee has said yes, on the assumption that libraries that have cataloged titles or databases they believe are relevant to their users should count what has been made accessible through the OPAC. But this is subject to abuse if libraries decide to start cataloging free resources solely for title counts.

Ultimately the “what to count” questions are probably more answerable than the “how to count” discussed below, although the answers might not be fair to some libraries. However, throughout our discussions there has been the persistent problem that the numbers no longer provide the same comparative value that they did in the print-only world. In a print realm, a library with 200,000 titles presumably had a stronger collection than a library with 100,000 titles. Today, electronic collections can number in the hundreds of thousands of titles on rather narrow subject areas or types of materials such as Supreme Court Records and Briefs. To say that two libraries each reporting 500,000 titles are relatively equal cannot be done without knowing much more about those titles.

Even with the great expansion in numbers, the Committee decided at one point that we were in fact being too conservative and not valuing our collections enough. Maybe the high numbers more accurately reflect the value of our collections. Perhaps we should in fact count everything we can. Access to the university library's resources could be an important factor in accreditation for a law school with cross-disciplinary research interests. But this still left us with the “how to count” question and ultimately the impossibility of defining titles in a uniform way across all of our libraries without forcing libraries to manage their materials in a way they may not want to select.


The “How To Count” Question:

Assuming we can come to an agreement on what to count, regardless of whether the numbers make sense or are meaningful, the larger challenge is deciding how to count. Here, we found the challenges insurmountable. Every potential solution for defining a countable “title” proved to have fatal flaws.

What is a countable electronic title? If a library has an electronic version of a printed book, the library clearly has one additional electronic title. That's easy. The number of electronic titles in the treatises portion of Making of Modern Law is also easy to determine, whether or not the library has listed each title in its OPAC. The number of titles in a series of databases from CCH is not so clear. Do we rely upon the vendors to tell us the number? We tried this, only to find out that they do not always function in the world of titles and counting “document” did not seem appropriate.

Do we maintain a list of the number of titles in the various databases? Assuming we could identify that number, we found that not everyone reported the identified number. The ABA is also not inclined to have us maintain an ongoing list of titles, which suggests that libraries should all acquire them.

Rather than attempting to count electronic titles, should the ABA Questionnaire itself have a checklist asking libraries to identify which of a selected list of electronic titles and databases are available at the law school? This presents multiple problems. If a database is one that all libraries have, then there is no point of asking the question: the answer from everyone will be “yes.” If a smaller number of libraries subscribes to a specified database, listing it in the questionnaire would give some implicit sanction that libraries are expected to acquire it. Additionally, such a list would need to be maintained and updated regularly.

Essentially, we found no identifiable way of identifying the number of titles in an electronic database other than creating MARC records for them. For the coming year, the ABA will in fact as a short-term solution for the coming ABA Annual Questionnaire, count only those titles that are in the online catalog. This basically means that we will count electronic titles the same as we count print titles. This leads us back, however, to our initial and major problem.

The idea of counting electronic titles assumes a standardization that is not transferable from the print world. Not only are the resources themselves not standard — lacking consistent definitions for title, database, aggregator, and ownership — but libraries have devised a variety of ways of handling their electronic resources which should take priority over a preset way of counting them. We had a standard for managing print titles — catalog them and include them in the OPAC. As a profession we are not in agreement on how to handle electronic titles. Some of us catalog them for the OPAC. Others of us find that these clutter the catalog. A library may have A–Z lists or links on a home page because the staff find these to be a better way to organize the materials.

The “In the OPAC” rule is consistent with past practices. It is identical to the requirement for counting microforms. At the same time, though, it forces libraries to catalog materials in the OPAC if they wish to count them when they may prefer some other means of providing access. The ABA Questionnaire Committee was particularly concerned that libraries would feel pressured to spend money on cataloging records acquired for the primary purpose of enabling the law school to count the resources when the library would prefer to use those funds to acquire additional resources.

All of these questions have been addressed during a time when the ABA Questionnaire Committee has been on its own quest to deemphasize data and to eliminate unnecessary or unreliable data from the questionnaire. The Committee works diligently to eliminate questions which result in unreliable data or data that has increasingly less comparative value. Because we cannot devise a means to collect counts on electronic titles and databases in a meaningful way, the ABA Questionnaire Committee does not want to continue to collect this data. They do wish us to continue to collect comparable data on dollars spent on print, non-print and electronic resources. Because this data can fluctuate from year to year depending on whether a library has made a particularly large purchase in a particular year, the Library Committee will explore this coming year how the data should be collected including the possibility of reporting a series of years. The deans on the ABA Questionnaire Committee are also very concerned that the Annual Questionnaire contains sufficient comparable information that will enable less well funded schools to use the information to gain additional support from their funding sources.


Describing Services:

While the ABA Questionnaire Committee expressed concern about the data on titles, the Committee is greatly interested in having libraries report in greater detail the types of services we provide to our students and faculty. They envision an expanded section in the Site Evaluation Questionnaire providing greater explanations of the services. To us this clearly illustrates positive news that the deans want expanded information about their libraries which they hope will enable the libraries to promote services not utilized by all the faculty at a particular school.

At the suggestion of the Questionnaire Committee, the Library Committee will most likely do an initial survey, possibly in conjunction with the AALL Academic Law Library SIS, on library services. These responses will enable us to identify a range of possibilities which can then be used to formulate the more expansive questions in the Site Evaluation Questionnaire.

In many ways, this somewhat lengthy memo cannot begin to describe the efforts three committees have taken to solve the issues raised by electronic titles. We know the outcome will please some of you and not others, and we look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Paul George, Chair 2007–2008
Billie Jo Kaufman, Chair, 2008–2009