ARCHIVED: Future of Law Libraries in the Digital Age Scenario #3: Private - Law Firm Electronic Library

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(November, 2001)


When we think of the library of the future we think of the virtual library. Law firms are inevitably relying more heavily on the increasingly available online research resources. Budget and space constraints along with firm culture and usage patterns dictate how quickly firm libraries will complete the transition but all are somewhere along the path to a totally electronic or virtual library.


With the exception of those print resources that are not yet available electronically, the library has ceased to exist as a physical place. Researchers turn to their computers to access resources that have been organized in meaningful ways by the library staff and are delivered via the firm's Intranet. The entire library staff works with attorneys and support personnel to identify user needs, evaluate resources and develop the collection/content. This same library staff also works with technical staff to manage the Intranet content for ease of access and act as trainers for end users. The rest of the library staff's time is spent performing research that requires more sophisticated research skills than is possessed by attorneys and staff. Much of this research involves non-legal resources with which attorneys and staff are not familiar.

Implications/strategies for library areas

  • Facilities

The library staff may have moved to office space within the various practice groups or may still be centralized. With the increased reliance on electronic resources, physical location of staff is of less importance. The facilities are designed to assist researchers in the use of the electronic library and are equipped to facilitate the delivery of remote reference services. These facilities include:

    • A multipurpose training room that is used for group training and is outfitted with systems for distance learning i.e., NetMeeting and video conferencing. This room can be rearranged to be used as a conference room for staff meetings, meetings with vendors etc.

    • Computer workstations where researchers can work quietly away from the distractions of their own offices.

    • Librarians' offices that allow the librarians to work with individuals at the computer for individual training/research sessions or to meet with small groups for planning sessions. (Some of the reference staff may prefer telecommuting and will not need assigned office space)

    • A network with high speed Internet access and wireless capabilities

    • Shelving needs are minimal as all information is now available only in electronic format. 


  •  Collections/content

Content includes both primary and secondary legal materials as well as resources that greatly broaden the collection i.e., corporate, financial, scientific, medical, government and general reference materials. Primary material is purchased once (from one vendor) but is integrated with all secondary resources. For example, you are able to retrieve a cited resource from any online treatise (if that resource is part of the library collection).

Material that is too old to be available electronically will be borrowed from academic libraries that maintain archives of this material either in microform, CD-ROM or print. All electronic resources are available through the firm's Portal to the Intranet or Internet and unless otherwise stated any costs involved are treated as overhead.

This Portal technology provides the ability to filter content to the attorney desktop enabling our attorneys to see only what they choose to see. It has become possible to purchase information in smaller and more specific segments at more reasonable prices thus helping librarians to purchase information from only a single selected source. The availability of increased amounts of electronic information in our library is dependent on our librarians' ability to negotiate flexible and sophisticated license agreements at reasonable rates.

The legal material available includes:

    • Case law: Attorneys and staff are able to retrieve by citation or key word searching (search functionality as available in Lexis or Westlaw) and view online or print as needed.

    • Statutes, codes and regulations: Available online via table of contents, by citation or keyword searching. Users are able to browse page by page, forward and backward.

    • Online digests/cite checkers: Researchers use online tools like Westlaw or LexisNexis to identify/update potential case law, etc. The digests/cite checkers link to the primary material collection described above.

    • Texts, Treatises, Law Journals and Periodicals: Practice specific treatises or texts as needed by the firm. Researchers would be able to browse issue table of contents or do keyword searching. These would be considered core titles for each practice with other titles available via online sources like Lexis or Westlaw.

    • Newsletters: Practice oriented newsletters are accessed electronically via the Internet or as current awareness services e-mailed to specified recipients.  


  • Staffing

The staff consists of librarians and technicians who have all the traditional skills plus a high degree of technical expertise. The demand for such highly qualified individuals is great and retention is difficult and expensive. They include:

    • A library director who has a vision of what the electronic library looks like in his/her firm, communication skills that allow him/her to get their firm to buy in to the vision, and an understanding of technology that allows him/her to work with technical staff to make it happen.
    • Acquisitions/Serials staff that have a complete understanding of licensing and copyright. Their responsibilities include negotiating contracts and managing user access.
    • Research staff that is skilled in evaluation of resources, training end users, and conducting research. Their responsibilities include working with end users to understand their needs, evaluating new and existing resources, assisting users in research and the use of the electronic resources, and performing research. With so much information available directly to the end user, the role of the research staff as intermediary will decrease as the need for training and needs assessment will increase.
    • Web development staff that is skilled in communication, project management, and systems thinking. Besides their technical expertise, they have a complete understanding of the library's mission and the resulting services provided by library staff. They spend their time working with library staff and end users in the development of the online library.
    • Clerical staff to support data entry as needed.
    • Interlibrary loan staff to locate and borrow older material available only in print.


  • Services

Increased reliance on technology has minimized the staff's opportunity for face to face contact with our users and increased the expectation of access to information anytime from anywhere. The impact of these changes can be seen in the following descriptions of services now offered by the library.

    • Reference/Research: Attorneys and staff communicate with library staff via an interactive reference service that uses computers, video cameras and interactive software. Research results are delivered electronically. With attorneys doing most of their own legal research the research most often conducted by librarians includes business, scientific and technical research.

    • Collection development: Librarians with practice specialties work with a designated attorney within each practice to identify, evaluate and develop the content for the electronic library for that practice.

    • Collection management: Librarians and acquisition/serials specialists manage subscriptions and contracts for content. This includes contract and license agreement negotiation and management of the library budget.

    • Access management: Librarians and acquisitions/serials specialists manage the licenses, user ids and passwords for end users. They also manage copyright permissions.

    • Resource Development: Librarians and technical/web staff work with attorneys and vendors to develop customized resources for use by their firm's attorneys.

    • Current awareness: Attorneys get one daily e-mail that has highlights of all of the newsletters, clipping services, etc. to which they subscribe. The e-mail also has a link to a personalized intranet page that aggregates all resources into one central page. All of this content is available on the attorneys wireless device.

    • Training: Librarians arrange vendor training or develop and deliver in-house training for both computer savvy and less computer savvy users. Librarians have the ability to take control of a users computer to demonstrate how to conduct a particular research session or to trouble shoot a problem.

  • Training

An electronic library requires library staff to develop skills in several areas. In addition to the need to stay current in their specific areas of expertise, they include leadership, communication, negotiation, marketing, evaluation of resources, technical know-how (networks, web-coding, portals, etc.), licensing and copyright, understanding of structure and holdings of legal publishing industry, financial acumen, and training adult users.

The need for increased release time to allow for continuing education for the library staff is putting an increasing strain on all staff. It is imperative that library staff be able to pass on what they learn in training sessions to the rest of the staff.

Not all the training for attorneys and staff can be accomplished face to face. Staff is working with IT professionals to develop online, just-in-time training segments available via the Intranet. These training modules are available to users any time from any location.

  • Budget

    The cost of an electronic library is often thought to be less than maintaining a print collection. In reality the cost is generally more. The budget for the electronic library is affected by the following:
    • The need for more technical staff leads to an increase in staffing costs. Expect to pay more for today's library staff.
    • Staffs for an electronic library require more on-going training than in the past, which, in turn, increases education costs.
    • Customization of information resources and integration with firm intranets/portals adds additional costs.
    • Reduction of duplication of resources reduces the dollars spent on content.
    • Membership fees for access to academic and special libraries are likely to continue to increase as private libraries are expected to share in the increased cost of archiving materials.
    • Fewer dollars spent on space.


  • Meets both attorney and client expectations of a modern information center that fits with the corporate world's expectations
  • Allows for closer ties between firm and client with electronic communication systems.
  • Allows for an increase in depth and breadth of information resources
  • Allows for access to information 24/7 from anywhere
  • Eliminates need for shelving, study tables, reference desk, book processing area - generally frees space for more productive use
  • Eliminates the need for processing and circulating incoming print material
  • Eliminates need for re-shelving and weeding print material
  • Eliminates duplication of resources
  • Makes it possible to create one user interface to all resources, both internal and external
  • Provides for customization and personalization of the user interface


  • Increases requirements for new technology tools
  • Increases cost of total operation
    • Higher salaried staff
    • Electronic materials more expensive
    • New technology tools come with cost
  • Reduces face-to-face communication between library staff and attorney
  • Inceases chances that some older material may become totally unavailable
  • Requires additional time for continuing education seminars and training


  • Strengthen relationships with other departments, particularly IT and attorney practice areas
  • Increase technical proficiency
  • Develop training skills
  • Develop expertise in particular subject areas
  • Develop communication and marketing skills


  • Technology professionals may absorb our positions
  • Attorneys may no longer need information professionals to find what they need
  • Budget tightening may impede our ability to carry out this transition
  • Electronic retrieval systems may replace information professionals