Law Books Take the Stage!

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Law Books Take the Stage!

By Susanna Leers, Pat Roncevich, and Sallie Smith

Collection weeding is a fact of life in every library. It is an essential evaluation process guided by collection development policies, patron demand, and shelf space limitations. The fate of weeded books depends on both the book and the library. Volumes with historic value may be stored in offsite facilities. Other weeded volumes may appear on duplicates and exchange lists, free for the cost of postage. Some books may be repurposed as functional items, such as birdhouses, purses, lamp bases, or even ornamentation for mail-order catalog furniture (as Nicholson Baker discusses in his essay, “Books as Furniture,” in his The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber.) But is there another alternative for those unfortunate volumes destined for the recycling bin?

Act I—Overture
Setting: Barco Law Library 

It was a cold, dreary Monday morning when an unexpected email arrived via the library website:

“To whom it may concern: Hello, I am a properties artisan at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. We are planning a production of Freud’s Last Session, and the show requires a great deal of books. If your library has books to dispose of, we would like to use those unwanted books. Thank you very much for your time.”

As luck would have it, our library had just decided to weed a sizeable section of duplicate case reporters to free up valuable shelf space. More than 1,600 bound volumes were destined for the dumpster until fate, in the form of the Pittsburgh Public Theater, intervened. The fortuitous email was forwarded to our Technical Services department. A series of phone calls ensued to address concerns of both parties. Yes, the props department needed lots of books—pronto. The upcoming play, Freud’s Last Session, dramatizes a conversation between Sigmund Freud (an atheist) and writer C.S. Lewis (a believer) on the timeless controversies of religion, love, and the meaning of life. The setting, Freud’s office, is dominated by a 20- by 24-foot wall of books. Would our books meet the production’s requirements? They were neither Viennese nor about psychiatry!  Would we have the student and staff manpower to complete the project to meet their deadline? 

Act II—The Process
Setting: The Law Library’s Technical Services Area

We needn’t have worried. The theater props team came to the law library to audition our books, and our aging reporters were immediately cast in the role. The props people were delighted with the worn yet elegant and dignified appearance of our books. Instead of being discarded, our deaccessioned volumes would soon begin a new chapter in their lives as theatrical props.

With less than three weeks to opening night, we needed to move quickly. Teams of student workers loaded the designated volumes on book trucks and transported them to a central processing area. Using a laptop, a librarian scanned each volume’s barcode for deletion from our cataloging system. Our students then packed the volumes into boxes for transport to the theatrical properties warehouse. All the books were pulled, deaccessioned, packed, and on their way to becoming stars—with time to spare. 

Act IIIA Star is Born!
Setting: The Pittsburgh Public Theater

At the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s workshop, our volumes received an intensive theatrical makeover. To lessen the weight on the bookcases, the artisans excised some of the text blocks and inserted foam forms  (the text blocks were recycled). Some book covers were painted and antiqued for variety and verisimilitude, though the naturally weathered and worn ones required no work at all. In a short time, our case reporters assumed the identity of German medical texts lining the bookcases of Freud’s personal study and proudly took their places on the stage. 

Our books lent an air of dignity and gravitas to the scene. The set designers loved them! In appreciation, the theater provided Freud’s Last Session tickets for the library staff and students who had helped with the project. As audience members watching the play, we could not help but admire the excellent performance by our old case reporters as they embarked on this new phase in their careers.   
Law books, attractive and uniformly bound, look good on a bookshelf and are sought after for staging in theater, movies, and television. Law librarians often espy law books adorning the sets of both legal and nonlegal television shows (see Nicholas Pengelley’s paper, "Law Books are Everywhere – on TV," for his opinions on the matter). As lawyers and law students increasingly turn to online resources, it’s reassuring to know that law books, such as our discarded case reporters, may pursue other career paths besides legal research.

Susanna Leers ( is eResearch and technology services librarian; Pat Roncevich ( is acquisitions and serials librarian; and Sallie Smith ( is cataloging and systems librarian at University of Pittsburgh School of Law’s Barco Law Library.