ARCHIVED: Future of Law Libraries in the Digital Age Scenario #1: The Virtual Academic Law Library

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(November, 2001)


The world of legal information and how legal researchers access that information is moving rapidly to a totally electronic environment. Commercial publishers are accelerating their conversion to more digital publication formats, and the volume of legal information from non commercial sources via the internet is even more significant. The rapid and chaotic increase of information available on the internet, and the inherent deficiencies (albeit great convenience) of search engines such as Google, calls for the need for the central and historical role of libraries to bring discipline and coherence to the world of information generally and as to legal information this is the natural and fundamental role of the law library.

In legal education, the ways that faculty do research and develop curriculum, and the ways that students prepare for classes, research papers, and access legal information is also profoundly impacted. As law schools respond to the influence of the web on their central mission and more specifically on the ways that they conduct day-to-day operations of administrative and student services, curriculum, and faculty teaching, scholarship and service, the academic law library also is transforming itself to meet the legal information needs of its constituencies in a digital environment.

Budgetary constraints force choices that compel the move to a virtual law library: the costs of maintaining dual formats, requiring continually expanding needs for building space, can no longer be justified.
For many institutions, therefore, the inevitability of a virtual academic law library prompts this scenario of the future.


To "envision" a virtual academic law library may seem an oxymoron, but this vision does contemplate an ongoing vibrant institutional presence within the life of a law school. The information resources and services of the library are all electronic, from scholars portals providing access to a wide array of digital files to electronic reference and document delivery services to interactive instructional modules teaching law students how to navigate the world of legal research in a digital age. Because content and services are provided virtually, the library must market the fact that the e-resources provided at the desktop are made available through its licensing and acquisitions services. The library facility itself is transformed into a high technology service center, staffed by librarians with a high level of expertise in navigating the digital legal information world. The virtual academic law library is transformed and redefined under this vision, but it nevertheless retains its central role of providing access to legal information and selecting and organizing content.



The physical plant is converted from [with new buildings, is designed for] substantially less emphasis on print collection storage and on site access to a service center fully equipped with high end technologies. The degree to which on-site facilities for research and in-person research and reference assistance may vary. Staff work space needs will vary, as there no longer is as much need for materials processing space but there is a continuing need for technologically equipped workstations for librarians and technical staff. Because most access and service is provided virtually, there no longer is a need to distinguish between public spaces and staff spaces. Depending on the institution and roles in the law school (see "partnering" scenario) the law library facility might be equipped with electronic classrooms and technical support staff for faculty.

Even assuming a virtual collection and services, as long as the ABA standards impose a significant "residency" requirement/,placing a high value on residency as a key component of the legal educational experience for law students (see Standards 304,306, Interpretation 306-3; also 702, 703) the academic law library facility will be critical to providing that environment. Otherwise stated, unless and until these standards are revised, there will continue to be a physical aspect to the virtual law library (see "academic law library as place" scenario).

Collections and Content: 

The evolution of the virtual law library began in the late 1980's and continued through the 1990's. It began as the legal databases of Lexis and Westlaw took firm roots in the legal research universe, and law libraries started reducing duplication of print sources. It accelerated as libraries cancelled subscriptions to print search tools such as Shepard's citators and West digests. Official U.S. government publications began going virtual in the 1990s and have continued this course. Digitzation of retrospective legal collections, apart from the resources in Lexis and Westlaw , by commercial (Hein OnLine) and non commercial (LII, LEDA, other academic law library initiatives) entities have made more digital content available. Finally, the last to convert to the digital world are the treatises, texts, monographs as the age of the e-book replaces the print formats.

The virtual law library "collection" is based on the principle of access rather than ownership. The collection development policy states that print will be acquired only when materials is not available in electronic form. The law library's legal information portal provides cross-platform access to a universe of digital resources, selected and organized utilizing values of coherence, relevance, currency, authority, stability and permanence . Development of appropriate standards, search engines and technology - locally, collaboratively (OCLC, RLG), or through national organizations such as ARL, AALL, LC (see "external partnering" scenario) - enabling cross database searching and retrieval of relevant sources. These digital resources include a combination of commercial and non commercial databases, catalogs, web sites, and links .

The virtual collection includes all primary domestic, foreign and international legal texts; and secondary materials such as e-treatises, e-journals, unpublished materials such as scholarly discussion, images and sound (court proceedings, appellate arguments). Retrospective collections are premised on digital initiatives and collaborations (see "repositories/print resources" scenario). The nature of what constitutes legal information has broadened as more non-legal information and interdisciplinary sources become available through the law library's portal. [But see ABA Standards and especially Interpretation 606-3].

The library's content portal incorporates many "beyond the boundary" law school resources, providing customized access for administrative units, faculty and students, curricular and scholarly initiatives. (see "partnering" scenario).


Law Librarians have an increasingly higher and different level of expertise in digital resources, technical applications. Focus is on evaluation of digital sources (including authentication, reliability, stability), development and maintenance of the digital collection, license negotiation and compliance; rights management; instructional and support roles for faculty and students.

Collection processing and maintenance staffing, serials check in and filing etc., are "virtually" eliminated. Academic law library organization and staffing models are restructured, and new measures for evaluating performance are needed.  


Remote access to library services: e-reference, e-document delivery, and other access/delivery mechanisms available through the legal information portal. Asynchronous service models : "any time, any where". New measurement models need to be developed and standarddized to assess quality of the law library's virtual services. Although more trivial directional and retrieval reference services decrease, the nature and complexity of reference questions increase. Interlibrary loan supplemented by commercial document delivery services, provided to the desktop. Instructional services for students include the increasing importance of critical evaluation of sources; even as student technological savvy is high, inculcating in them an appreciation for the nature and function of the sources remains as a critical focus . Faculty services are delivered electronically. Library increasingly involved in technical support function. Digitization services and support for mounting and providing access to digital content developed by faculty, journals, other law school entities.


Deans and other institutional administrators expect that the virtual law library achieves cost savings and this is true as to elimination of costs for print materials, support staff costs for processing materials, and a constantly expanding need for space. Conversely, there are cost implications for the library absorbing new roles, staff development, technical infrastructure and the unknown factor of "pay per view" licensing. Even as the expectation that "its all free on the internet" becomes more of a reality, the library must maintain access to the authoritative, stable and costly commercial electronic services.

SWOT analysis


  • Law libraries have been progressing towards the virtual for over twenty years and have a strong tradition of adapting to the digital environment
  • The virtual law library could achieve budgetary savings for the law school


  • Without effective marketing of the law library's identity, users may fail to recognize that resources and services accessed at desktop are provided by the library
  • Conversion to a totally digital environment is still a long ways away, especially for certain types of materials such as treatises ands monographs
  • Techno stress
  • ABA Standards continue to require print


  • Expansion of access and services to "any time/anyplace" , not tied to physical environment
  • Academic law libraries exploring new ways to access digital content
  • Work with ABA to revise and re-evaluate standards to accommodate a virtual library


  • Effect of "pay-per-view" licensing on access to digital legal information
  • Disintermediation undermining the traditional function of the reference desk and other law library roles


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