Will the Public Lose Access to Essential Legal Documents?

"When people say everything's online," says Jerry Dupont of the Law Library Microform Consortium [LLMC], "they're woefully uninformed."

Yes, it might seem like we have access to all the legal information we might ever need but Jerry Dupont’s observation still rings true.  And while ongoing digitization efforts of law and other libraries continue to benefit the legal research community, the progress of these initiatives has been hampered by the current economic climate.

"Across the country, law libraries are trying to adapt to the digital revolution and preserve historic and precedential documents.  But budget cuts have hit hard at academic law libraries, which historically have hosted some of the most robust legal collections.  And the pressures are creating concerns that the public will lose access to essential legal documents.”

In a recent article published by the American Bar Association, Hollee Schwartz Temple, director of the legal research and writing program at West Virginia University College of Law,  asks:  “Are digitization and budget cuts compromising history?”  This article provides a nice overview of some the issues and potential threats that affect long-term access and preservation to our digital legal resources.

As Schwartz Temple reports evidence of this slow down was found in a recent American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) survey.  The survey found that “nearly 60 percent of … respondents have been making do with less for the past several years.”

“Even the venerable Law Library of Congress, home to the world’s largest legal collection, has felt the impact.  According to Law Librarian of Congress David Mao, budget woes have affected the library’s ability to acquire materials, preserve them and make them readily available.”

The ABA’s Standing Committee on the Law Library of Congress contributed to the development of the Uniform Electronic Legal Material Act (ULEMA) U.S. legislation that aims to “harmonize standards for acceptance of electronic materials across jurisdictional boundaries, and to help lawyers feel confident that the digital material they rely upon is current.”

The chair of this Standing Committee, Liz Medaglia, asks:  “With the increasing number of materials that are born digital and never get into hard copy, how do you make sure that what you have is accurate, current and preserved?”  It's hoped that legislation like ULEMA will help foster long-term preservation and provide ways to ensure available information is authoritative.

Regardless of the stability of law library budgets issues surrounding access and preservation of digital legal materials continues to gain importance.  The LLMC has made great contributions in this area but they are just one piece in the larger and increasingly complex legal resource puzzle and, as Dupont says, they are not “equipped to digitize the entirety of primary American legal authority immediately.”

While LLMC (who have also included some Canadian legal resources) and other organizations like them should be loudly applauded a national strategy on digital preservation is needed to deal with these issues here in Canada.  Louis Mirando, Chief Law Librarian at the Osgoode Hall Law School Library, introduced a proposal for a special interest group on digital preservation and access at the recent annual meeting of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries. This may be a valuable first step toward coordinating efforts in this country.