Last week I wrote about the potential game-changer ebooks could become in law library collections. Part of my motivation to write about that was another development that I knew was in the works.
Librarians have become very adept at finding ways to get what their patrons need. A huge part of a law library’s collection is the loose-leaf subscription, a text which is supplemented by inserts. Depending on the frequency, the publisher will send out updates which keep the content of the original tome current. Currency is vital for lawyers – they do not want to appear in court using a particular case as authority, only to find out it was overturned on appeal but they weren’t aware. However, loose-leafs can be very expensive; some annual costs are thousands of dollars, plus you must add in the cost of the filing service. Many years ago, the publishers allowed libraries to purchase contents once a year, thus keeping their collections reasonably current, while not breaking the bank. It seemed to be a win-win: the publishers got sales, albeit not quite in keeping with their output costs (author royalties, development, materials) and libraries stayed within their budgets.
Then last week I got wind of a change. My first clue was a tweet from a colleague in B.C.:
Want to ask if a certain legal publisher is on crack, with their new pricing. Can’t buy looseleaf contents every other year.
That’s typical Twitter hyperbole, so I investigated further, and checked with the publisher. Upon confirmation, I began to ponder this new reality, and how it would affect my library. I also wondered how other libraries with broader mandates would be affected.
First of all, I’d like to make it clear that the publisher has the right to determine the rules. They are in the job of making money, and if they say you have to purchase a full subscription in order to get the contents, then that’s what you have to do. On the other hand, library budgets are static. There is not going to suddenly be a whole pile of money to purchase additional subscriptions, or to pay for the staff to file those additional updates. The pie will just be divvied up a little differently. Instead of libraries having a broad collection of reasonably current material, there will be pockets where the content is fully accessible, and lots of areas where coverage is nonexistent. If you’re a courthouse library whose mandate is to provide resources for a wide range of practice groups, I think you’re SOL. But then, you were bleeding before, when you made the decision to stretch your budget as best you could.
Honestly? I think the problem is that libraries have done too good a job of rolling over. Our budgets get cut, and we say, “Okay, we can do this instead”, and our bosses are happy. Maybe if they lost a few significant decisions because their resources weren’t up to date they’d think about it differently. Now we have to make some really hard decisions: which practice groups are we going to support? For my own library, I’m going to be going over our collection with a fine tooth comb, and resubscribing to all titles that are relevant, and cancelling anything that was remotely a vanity purchase. That includes loose-leafs with one annual update, which I usually ignore because they were so inexpensive to keep.
And those annual subscriptions with 12 updates? I don’t care if it’s Houlden & Morawetz, I can’t justify $3,000+ for one book. PER YEAR! (Perhaps that’s why we subscribe to InsolvencySource.) So a word of warning to the legal publishers: law librarians are on the warpath. You will probably win this battle, but the war is hardly over.