The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 26, Number 5
Jul 2003

Survey of Preservation Efforts in Law Libraries

By Patricia K. Turpening

Ms. Turpening is Head of Preservation and Archives, University of Cincinnati Law Library, Cincinnati. She conducted on-site surveys of the preservation efforts and priorities of thirty law libraries during 2000-2001. Here she analyzes the results of these surveys, discusses her observations, and makes recommendations for individual libraries and the leadership of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL).

There are three major reasons why the preservation of the materials in law libraries is important.

First, those materials represent a significant investment for every library. That investment includes not only the initial purchase price, but also the cost of processing each item when it is acquired and then storing it over its lifetime. As far as purchase price is concerned, law libraries with AALL members are currently spending an estimated $2.1 billion on legal information.

The second reason law books need to be preserved is that the unaddressed problems of the past are now coming to bear. Those problems stem from the extremely poor quality of paper and bindings in most books published from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1980s (and continuing even today in books published in some countries).

A third reason is that even the earliest legal materials are still used today since they may contain "good law" (i.e., cases that have not been overturned by other courts). This need to use and refer to older volumes sets the field of law apart from many other disciplines. Even though these three reasons for preservation in law libraries are promising, fewer than two dozen law libraries have instituted full-fledged conservation programs to care for their materials.

While digitization may seem to address some of the problems inherent in preserving books, relying on digitization or assuming it is the solution can only create a false sense of security. Because of migration issues and the need to repeatedly upgrade hardware, operating systems, and display devices so the intellectual content can be read, digitizing should be viewed as a wonderful method to access material and make it available worldwide but not as a way to preserve the information. In order to be considered a legitimate long-term preservation solution, a method must preserve the intellectual content for a minimum of a hundred years, a claim that digitization cannot yet make. Many national and international groups are addressing these issues to prevent digitized images from becoming the bane of twenty-first century libraries, as acid paper was to those in the twentieth.

Law librarians need to accept responsibility for—and muster the initiative to begin—preserving the volumes in their own individual libraries, but we also need to work together to protect our discipline's body of work, something that has not heretofore been done in a systematic way.

To help move law librarians in this direction, I thought it would be useful to determine what law libraries are doing today to preserve their materials. Thus the idea of conducting yet another preservation survey1 was born, but I knew it would have to go beyond the aims of the previous ones. Although they had gathered information about the types of specific actions being taken by a large number of law libraries across the country, there was no follow-through, either with the libraries surveyed to help them further their efforts, or with the American Association of Law Libraries to help it develop the educational programs and services needed by law librarians interested in preservation. To address those deficiencies, I decided to undertake a survey in which I would personally visit a limited number of law libraries, talk with their staff members, observe the conditions of the materials on their shelves, and give basic preservation workshops.2 There would be give and take, with me asking them about their activities, answering their questions, and teaching them about preservation. To ensure follow-through with the libraries, I would write a letter to each of the librarians after I met with them. The letters would include recommendations specific to their own situations and needs.

To ensure follow-through with AALL, I am including a number of recommendations for the AALL leadership in this article.

Survey Method

During 2000-2001, I took a sabbatical to visit a variety of law libraries and conduct my survey. My leave included six alternate months, and I completed the visits by the fourth month. By the time I was finished, I had visited thirty academic, private, and government law libraries in four states.3 The majority (nineteen) were academic since they are traditionally viewed as having the responsibility for preserving the significant works of every discipline, law being no exception. Librarians in other types of law libraries I visited expressed this sentiment, although they acknowledged that they do need to preserve unique volumes in their own collections as well.

I contacted each library director by letter well in advance. The time was divided between conducting the survey with one or more staff members, touring the facility, and conducting a basic preservation awareness workshop if one had been requested by the librarians.

Analysis of Results

I was please to discover a great deal of interest in preservation issues overall, especially on the part of the library directors with whom I spoke. They seemed to be well aware of the problems associated with acidic paper, low-quality bindings, and sub-par environmental conditions. However, preservation received short shrift in most of the libraries. There were various reasons for this, prime among them being staff members' work load involving other projects, and a belief that addressing preservation issues would be too expensive.

When the director did place a high priority on preserving the library's volumes, however, ways were found to do so. Individual librarians can make some improvements, but a systemic change that makes preservation an integral part of the library's mission can happen only when the director makes it clear that preserving the materials can and should be done.

At this time, the overwhelming majority (80%) of the libraries I surveyed addresses their preservation problems individually and informally, with only 10% having formal in-house programs. There seemed to be some desire, on the part of the libraries that address their problems individually, to do more, but they were not sure how to obtain the necessary training and knowledge to proceed.

I asked the librarians to identify the level of effort they had undertaken in twelve areas: (1) conducting a survey to determine preservation needs; (2) writing a preservation policy; (3) writing a long range preservation plan; (4) monitoring environmental conditions; (5) monitoring levels of particulates; (6) covering windows and fluorescent lights to limit light damage; (7) using a Library Binding Institute (LBI)-certified binder; (8) training and supervising staff and students in stacks maintenance; (9) having regular preservation awareness programs; (10) regularly cleaning or vacuuming books; (11) having security measures in place; and (12) having a written and updated disaster plan.

The libraries made the most effort in the following areas: using an LBI-certified binder; having security measures in place to limit thefts and vandalism; limiting ultraviolet exposure by covering windows; training and supervising staff in stacks maintenance; and monitoring environmental conditions. Areas with the least amount of effort included conducting surveys to determine preservation needs, writing preservation policies, writing long-range preservation plans and disaster plans, conducting regular programs to raise preservation awareness, and dusting books and shelves. These results indicate that libraries put forth most effort in areas not usually associated with preservation while giving little attention to those most directly related to traditional preservation.

The most pressing need for the largest libraries is to conduct a preservation survey or have someone else conduct one for them. Surveys can reveal surprises about the facility, such as plumbing fixtures directly over book stacks, roofing problems that can lead to leaks, and either insufficient airflow or problems in the ductwork that could cause a mold outbreak. This is also the stage at which the budget necessary for various one-time and ongoing projects should be estimated, along with identifying the sources of the funding. These plans can be written for individual collections, such as the rare book room, as well as the entire library.

I asked the librarians to identify all of the ways they deal with their most heavily used volumes that need repair. Eighty-seven percent of the libraries sometimes send the books to their commercial binder, 83% sometimes repair them in-house, 60% may purchase replacements, 10% may send them to another library for repair, and 10% use the services of a professional conservator.

Since libraries already have working relationships with their binders, it is easy for them to send books needing repairs along with their regular shipments. Over the long run, however, the library can save a substantial amount of money by doing more of this work itself. In addition to completing standard repairs, paraprofessionals or even volunteers could be trained to construct phase boxes.

I also asked those surveyed to indicate which preservation actions were accorded the highest priority in their libraries. The most frequent answers were conducting preservation surveys and writing disaster plans, and the librarians rated the importance of carrying them out as very high. Only one of the libraries had a separate budget line for preservation-related expenses.

Very few of the libraries have participated in cooperative preservation projects, and none of those involved other libraries. There was interest in doing so, but the libraries would need encouragement to get involved in projects of that type.

With my goal of offering recommendations to AALL leaders in mind, I questioned survey participants about the mandate in the AALL strategic plan for the creation of a new national plan for the preservation of legal materials in all formats. Specifically, I asked them what groups of materials or titles should be given high priority in a new plan. Predictably, materials from the nineteenth century were the most frequently mentioned.

Many answers were also given to a question seeking suggestions for the Preservation Committee of the Technical Services Special Interest Section that would help it meet the needs of law libraries. Many librarians felt that regional workshops designed for both professionals and paraprofessionals would be useful. Publishing articles in AALL Spectrum about different aspects of preservation, including pieces about successful preservation programs, was suggested several times. Using new technology such as the Internet and videoconferencing was emphasized as a way to reach more librarians and have more impact.

Many librarians were interested in being involved in an electronic discussion list for the librarians I visited so they could discuss various preservation issues and ask for advice and opinions. Quite a few wanted the names of the other law librarians in their geographic area who had also indicated an interest in learning about preservation so that they could discuss common issues and explore cooperative ventures. There was some interest in having general information about preservation, and more than a third wanted to learn about grants and funding agencies. Overall, there was considerable interest in the various options I offered them for learning about preservation.

A final question asked the respondents to specify what they would like to know about preservation to improve their current efforts. Basic book repair and preservation were mentioned most frequently. They were also interested in reformatting options, in red-flagging the last copies of titles in cataloging records, in low cost preservation measures, and in learning how to start a preservation program.


1. The Preservation Committee of the AALL Technical Services Special Interest Section conducted surveys in 1983 and 1987, and the AALL Special Committee on the Preservation Needs of Law Libraries conducted a survey in 1990.

2. I felt qualified to conduct this survey and provide preservation workshops not just because my professional work has been focused in this area since 1988, but also because I have been involved in preservation efforts in AALL for almost twenty years. Discovering in the early 1980's that no group existed in AALL to address preservation issues, I took the initiative to form a nascent group which ultimately became the Preservation Committee of the Technical Services Special Interest Section, and I served as its first chair. I was a member of the AALL Special Committee on the Preservation Needs of Law Libraries which, under the leadership of the late Diane Vincent-Daviss, recommended that AALL form a standing committee on preservation. That recommendation was followed and I served as one of its chairs before it was unfortunately abolished in 1998. I have remained active by publishing, delivering papers, and coordinating programs and workshops on both national and local level.

3. Libraries in four states were visited for this survey: Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio.

This is a condensed version of the first eight pages of the original paper, which was published in Law Library Journal, vol. 94, no. 3, 2000, on pages 363-393. It is reprinted here with the author's permission. © Patricia K. Turpening, 2002.

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