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Law Libraries & the Ithaka Report: The Law is of “General Interest”

As FGI readers know, Ithaka S + R’s final FDLP modeling report is available on the FDLP Desktop. GPO deemed the final report “unacceptable under the terms of the contract.” But since an entire day of the fall Federal Depository Library Conference will be devoted to the discussion, “Creating Our Shared Vision: Roles and Opportunities in the FDLP,” I thought I’d slog through the 245 page report, as best I could.

I’m not far along in my reading, and can’t yet comment on the whole, but I’m already disagreeing in part. In particular, I was disappointed that a section, on which I commented in the draft stage, still mischaracterizes legal materials.

On page 33, the report states:

Law libraries and the court system have a significant but concentrated interest in federal government documents. Their overall collections are often heavily focused in three key categories: current and historical statutes and the US Code; current and historical versions of the Federal Register and Code of Federal Regulations; and court decisions. Other materials – including contextual materials such as the Congressional Record, which supports the investigation of legislative histories – may also be of significant value to some users of these collections. Legal scholars and law students use these materials in a variety of ways, including for research projects, journal editing, and in the preparation of court submissions. For judicial purposes in particular, these materials are essential records of the operation of the federal government, in many ways more like archival documents than general-interest publications.

Just in this one paragraph, I have several concerns. First, administrative decisions are left out. Academic law libraries’ government documents collections are focused on statutes, regulations, court decisions (judicial branch), and administrative decisions (executive branch). Administrative decisions are among the most challenging documents to collect and manage, but there is not a law school in the country that doesn’t care about them.

Second, the public is left out. Self-represented litigants, historians, social science researchers, high school debaters, and citizen-advocates use legal materials. The focus on “legal scholars and law students” limits the mission of law libraries, when in fact, our mission – and patron base – is often quite broad.

Third, the word “archival” was left in. I objected to the use of “archival” during the drafting process and I object to it now. The law – the law that governs all of us – is a general-interest publication. The law is a growing and changing body, which does make it hard to characterize. Patrons need “current” law, but sometimes the “current” law is five, ten, or fifty years old. To say “archival” misses the point, and actually minimizes the importance of a collection of legal materials.

We don’t have every volume of the Code of Federal Regulations back to 1938 because the colors look lovely on the shelves. We keep them because patrons – all types of patrons – need and want a “snapshot in time.” For example, if you are suing a polluter, you would need to know if the polluter was actually in compliance with the environment regulations at the time it polluted. Or, if you were convicted of a crime in the past, and now are applying for a change in your immigration status, you would need to know if the crime was a felony at the time of the conviction.

We exhort our patrons to update their research, to make sure they aren’t relying on a law that has been amended or overturned. At the same time, we assist patrons in finding the law as it existed when a particular action or crime occurred.

Law libraries are special libraries, much like engineering or health sciences libraries. Legal research may require specialized collections, tools, and assistance, but the law itself isn’t special. It belongs to all of us. I can’t think of a better definition of a “general-interest publication” than that.

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