What Makes a Great Law School Library?


Many thought that the digital age would render brick-and-mortar libraries obsolete. But the modern-day law library has emerged as a vital center for learning and research that’s busier than ever. We rank 198 law libraries for resources, service and space.

When James Dunkelberger first walked into the law library at Brigham Young University School of Law, he was surprised by the extensive list of resources available to students.

He was assigned a personal study carrel where he could store his study materials and supplies. It came with wireless network access as well as a hardline connection that he could plug into. And he had access to the library’s 25 private rooms that he and members of his study group could reserve for meetings.

“It’s like a home base,�? he said of the BYU law library. “You can network with the people you need to. Everything you need is at your fingertips.�?

The result is a place that is inviting, even enjoyable, for students but still offers everything they need to enhance the educational process.

“The school has provided us a place where we feel comfortable and has the space and the technology to facilitate learning,�? Dunkelberger said.

The situation at BYU isn’t unique. While the mission of law libraries hasn’t changed all that much over the years, the way they go about achieving those goals certainly has.

Today, every library must provide material not just in printed books, but in a variety of digital formats. And they have to make sure the library is not just a place for academic research, but a comprehensive learning center where students can interact with one another while still getting valuable instruction and advice from trained professionals.

It’s all part of the evolution of the law library in the 21st century.

“The objectives [of the law library] are the same,�? said Arthur E. Bonfield, professor and head of the law library at the University of Iowa College of Law. “The means of satisfying those objectives, though, have changed.�?

What makes a good law library in the 21st century includes a variety of factors: comfort, accessibility, convenience and, most of all, availability of the latest technological tools.
This is the third time The National Jurist has ranked law school libraries — with rankings previously appearing in 2000 and 2004. And for the most part, law schools continue to improve their offerings — from number of volumes to ratio of professional librarians to enrollment.

Our methodology has changed slightly over the years. We no longer measure for number of computer workstations, as wireless technology has replaced the old school-provided hard-wired stations.

But the core measurement system is the same, using data from the ABA: The number of volumes and titles make up 50 percent of the score. The ratio of library study seating to enrollment counts for 20 percent. The ratio of full-time professional librarians to enrollment, and the number of hours that the library is open each week account for 15 percent each. We translated each raw figure or ratio to percentile form on a 1-10 scale.

The end result: The University of Iowa repeats as the top library — the post it held in 2004. Yale Law School ranks second, up one spot from 2004. And Indiana University-Bloomington is third, dropping from second in our 2004 rankings.

But while there is not a lot of movement in the rankings, there has been a lot of improvement among most of the nation’s 198 law school libraries.

Information Please

Law libraries used to measure their effectiveness in providing the information that faculty and students need for research by the number of volumes and subscription titles they stock. But that’s changing.

The explosion of digital material has meant a sea change in the way library administrators approach their roles in the educational process.

Bonfield said that the Iowa law library, which is primarily used for research by students and faculty, strives to provide the widest range of on-site information resources possible. The library still purchases large amounts of print material every year — ranking an amazing second for total number of volumes. But the amount of digital information it must acquire to keep up with the demand is also growing.

“Our objective is to have everything,�? Bonfield said.

That means Iowa and other libraries have to devote a greater portion of their resources to make available books and reference material in a variety of electronic formats.

The library at Yale Law School, for instance, now spends about 25 percent (around $600,000) of its annual information budget on licensing of digital resources, according to law librarian Blair Kauffmann. Yale also has placed a larger proportion of information services online and has created digital resources such as The Avalon Project, which provides free access to historical legal information found in the library’s collections.

But despite the heavy reliance on digital material, use of print remains high. Kaufmann said that library circulation last year was the highest in history.

Schools face a delicate balancing act in deciding how much to invest in print versus digital materials.

“Some longtime faculty members prefer print format,�? said Kory Staheli, library director at 25th-ranked BYU, “and newer faculty members prefer an online electronic format. We have to make sure we have what both need.�?

Caroline Osborne, law librarian at 18th-ranked Washington & Lee School of Law, said that libraries must be responsive to the needs of users in this evolving educational environment. That means figuring out the right mix of formats.

“Our print collection is still very vital,�? Osborne said. “But we are changing what we are adding.�? Last year, the Washington & Lee library stopped collecting print volumes of state legal codes. Instead, students are provided electronic access to the codes from all 50 states.

Prompted in part by economics and in part by technology, the changes stem from a gradual reassessment of the basic way in which libraries go about meeting their responsibilities to the educational community.

“We are looking at the collection as a whole,�? Osborne said. “We are moving away from the traditional collection.�?

Instructional Role

For law libraries, the challenges of the electronic age go beyond just being able to deliver material in either print or digital form. It means that more library users need assistance when it comes to using and accessing the various forms of information.

“Years ago, our instruction focused primarily on print material and microfilm,�? Bonfield said.
“Today, we spend lots of instructional time on the use of digital material.�?

That often involves advising students on which approach – print or digital – would be the most efficient way to access the material.

“In the past, we just assumed that if we had the collections, they would figure it out,�? said David Armond, associate director of information technology at BYU.

Helping students find the material they need in a format they can use is a key mission for law librarians.

“I will never forget my first semester,�? said April Merrill, a third year at the University of Tulsa College of Law, which ranks 34th. She was looking for a form for a quiet title action, but literally had no idea where to begin.

“I spent at least an hour with one of my classmates searching for this form, to no avail,�? she said. They finally went to the reference librarian on duty. She personally guided them to the correct form books and taught them how to use the index quickly to find what they needed.

“It took her maybe 10 minutes, but I will never forget how to find forms,�? Merrill said.

That kind of hands-on help is critically important for law students. Even the experience of going into the law school library can be intimidating, as it was initially for Merrill.

“There are just so many books and electronic resources, it can be overwhelming,�? she said.

Kristin Zinsmaster, a third year at the 11th-ranked University of Minnesota School of Law, said that assistance from the school’s trained librarians is vital for her as a member of the school’s law review.

“The Minnesota Law Review is pretty much in the business of making obscure requests of our reference librarians, during both the racking and cite-checking processes,�? she said. “The law librarians are well-acquainted with both of the processes and are absolutely invaluable to us as a journal.�?

Zinsmaster cited one instance last year when she was searching for hard copies of speeches by former presidents. The speeches had been removed from the Web site shortly after the 2008 election and had not yet been added to the presidential papers. But, she said, a librarian was able to locate the most official paper copy of the speeches in the same afternoon.

Jack Sullivan, also a third year at the University of Minnesota, said he’s been able to make the most of both print and digital resources at the law library.

“It’s the place where I’ve learned how to conduct research, with the assistance of reference librarians and other staff,�? he said.

Merrill said that she takes advantage of the law library’s quiet study rooms and the enclosed computer lab.

“In those quiet spaces, I’m able to get my work done without constant distraction,�? she said.

A Place of Their Own

In today’s law school environment, schools are finding that it pays to design their libraries to fit the needs of students.

Six years ago, BYU’s law school launched a major upgrade of its facilities that doubled the size of the law library’s space. The school provided wireless connectivity throughout the building and assigned each student with their own study carrel, which becomes like their own office space. BYU now has the highest ratio of seats to students in the nation, with 1.98 library seats for every student.

Dunkelberger said he spends 30 to 40 hours per week in the library and during finals, as much as 12 hours a day.

“The best thing about the law library is the facility itself,�? he said. “It’s space that me and my study buddies can use.�?

Many law schools emphasize the library as a home base for the law school community, rather than as a repository for books, said Washington & Lee’s Osborne.

“It’s become an office for students,�? she said.

And the design of the library has changed, allowing it to become more integrated into the overall life of the students.

Joan Howland, associate dean for information technology and director of the University of Minnesota’s law school, said that the school’s library is busier than ever. Students are still using the library as a place to study and congregate, even with laptops making material available from almost any location, she said.

“There’s a lot more traffic, more interaction with the reference desk,�? Howland said.

Students can contact librarians via e-mail or live chat to get help.

Kaufmann said Yale law librarians are turning to innovative methods to reach students. One avenue involves offering more instruction and even providing a host of credit and non-credit courses. The library also is involved in most of the law school’s clinics, offering lectures and devising research guides for each.

“Today’s ‘born digital’ generation of law students are among the most intensive library users we’ve experienced,�? Kaufmann said.

Yale students can text-message reference questions and the school’s online catalog can be readily viewed on handheld devices such as the iPhone. And the Yale library sponsors blogs focused on rare books, foreign and international law and legal references.

The University of Minnesota law library has even tapped the social networking phenomenon: The library has its own Facebook page that allows administrators and students to communicate with one another.

Technology Budget Crunch

The transition of libraries into the digital age doesn’t come without its challenges, though. Administrators are faced with pumping tens of thousands of dollars into new technology at the same time they are facing increasing budget pressures.

“It’s much more expensive to run a really nationally first-rate law library than 25 years ago,�? Bonfield said.

At Yale, the library has formed strategic alliances with publishers to digitize important information services, making early American legal treatises, U.S. Supreme Court briefs and primary legal documents available online.

“It’s not cheap to run a law library,�? the University of Minnesota’s Howland said. “Technology is very expensive, and we still need to buy certain materials in hard copy.�?

With the availability of digital information exploding at a breakneck rate, what does the future hold for law libraries?

At many schools, law libraries are assuming a broader role in providing educational support for the classroom.

Dragomir Cosanici, library director at fifth-ranked Louisiana State University’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center, said the school makes many classroom lectures available online through programs such as Skype.

“So if a professor is off to deliver a lecture in Holland and still wants to hold his class, he can do so,�? Cosanici said. The library also offers a number of software packages that allow a student to answer questions or provide feedback instantly while in class.

Cosanici predicted that “cloud computing�? will become more prevalent – reference materials will be made available in Internet-based files that will allow individuals to work from any computer anywhere.

“It’s happening now in some ways,�? he said. “And in the future, we will do away with passwords as we know them, and instead use smart cards to access materials.�?

There also will be greater availability of multinational materials, with more accessibility and more free access to those resources, he predicted.

Libraries also will help students develop the research skills to become more practice-ready so they will be ready to hit the ground running as soon as they begin working, ei
ther clerking or in practice.

Osborne sees an increasing role for technology in law libraries. Devices like the Kindle e-book reader and the new Apple iPad are expected to have a major impact on the way people access and acquire information.

Even so, Osborne said, there will always be a role for information preservation.

“The law library will continue to be an institutional repository and hold a major role in the legal education process,�? she said.

This guest blog post is authored by Keith Carter and was published in the 2010 Spring issue of preLaw Magazine. Click here for the digital edition of the 2010 Springissue of preLaw Magazine or vist the preLaw Magazine website for more great content about law school!

To hear more about the many factors that will affect where you decide to go to law school, check out Law School Podcaster’s podcast, “Choosing the Right Law School.”

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