“The processes and concepts of collection development and collection management by 2025 will be dramatically different from those in 2000.” An assessment

 ***Caroline Stafford examines the processes and concepts of collection management over the first quarter of the 21st Century. This essay won the 2021 BIALL Student Award.***


The legal information sector was established in the late 19th century and has changed substantially since its conception. The arrival of computers in the 1960s can be marked as a real turning point, with evolution of technology increasing rapidly at the turn of the century (Hosier, 2020). The concepts of collection development and collection management have been particularly influenced. Collection development denotes “the selection and/or acquisition of library materials” whereas collection management encompasses “the whole range of activities involved in managing access to information resources” (Corrall, 2012, p. 5). These activities range from selection and acquisition to storage and weeding. Law libraries within law firms have seen dramatic changes due to the following phenomena: the financial crisis of 2008, technological developments and the Covid-19 pandemic. The credit crunch triggered revisions of law library budgets, policies and acquisition processes, whilst the recent technological boom has shifted many collections from print to online, with librarian’s responsibilities adapting accordingly. The most unexpected and sudden of these shifts is the Covid-19 pandemic. With lawyers and law librarians alike suddenly forced to work from home, the crisis has acted as a catalyst in the shift from print to online resources.

Financial crisis of 2008

The autumn of 2008 was a major turning point for law firms and their libraries. As the housing bubble burst and financial institutions nose-dived, the legal sector took a mighty hit. Client demand for legal services stalled which had a profound effect on the profits of law firms of all sizes, with 8,715 business services employees made redundant (Burk and McGowan, 2011, p. 27-8). The recession impacted librarian’s work as management priorities were made clear: reduce costs as much as possible. Budgets were to be reduced with librarians consequently undertaking more regular negotiations with vendors to reduce subscription prices (Owen, 2009, p. 160). The effect of this change is still present, with yearly budget reductions the norm for many law libraries within the legal sector.

Prior to the financial crisis law librarians had larger budgets and flexibility in their spending habits. Owen (ibid) describes the collection practices of pre-recession law librarians as having “long been a stable and fairly predictable segment of the overall information industry”. A sudden shift in the finances of legal clients left once profitable firms with little work and, therefore, profit. Government spending cuts also played a part as firms were no longer privy to funding (Byström, 2019, p 3). Management therefore chose to cut budgets and headcounts, hitting law librarians hard. The “wriggle room” in pre-2008 budgets disappeared, and selection and acquisition processes were forced to modify (Small, 2009, p. 288). Although law librarians today are certainly more restricted financially, they have had to work towards budgets from at least the 1970s (Carter, 1978). The reasoning behind this may have changed, but the prospect of a reduced budget is not a new phenomenon. It is the changes prompted by these financial restrictions that has transformed collection development and collection management for law libraries.

Collection development policies in law libraries are not as common as those in academic or government libraries (Johnson, 2018, p.83). Dina (2015, p. 39) explains that those with policies have been forced to make modifications due to financial restrictions. These tighter budgets increased limitations on purchases at a time when resources were diversifying in format and increasing in price. To accommodate for this, law librarians were forced to “go back to basics and thoroughly review our teams, services and financial management” (Small, 2009, p. 287). With budgets having to account for both online and hard copy resources, policies had to be adapted. However, Fitchett et al. (2011, p.103) explains that it was no longer enough to cancel large print subscriptions, as online databases were increasing in volume, and often price. Librarians have consequently had to rethink collection development policies and the concept of their collections, with reduced budgets and diversified formats in mind. This marked a shift in both processes and concepts of collection development and collection management for law librarians.

Acquisition processes also began to change due to the 2008 financial crisis, with demand-driven acquisition emerging as highly popular (Costello, 2017, p. 3) This occurs when a resource is viewed, selected or downloaded a certain number of times, with these limits decided upon by the librarian (Johnson, 2018, p. 134). These actions are known as ‘triggers’ and, once the limit is hit, the resource is automatically purchased for the library. Demand-driven acquisition therefore ensures that information resources will be utilised by library users. Johnson (ibid, p. 135) describes this as purchasing “just-in-time of need instead of just-in-case of some future need”. However, Sindler (2016, p. 126) promotes pay-per-view acquisition as an appropriate process as “most law libraries cannot afford to subscribe to every journal from which their users need articles” due to financial limits. This reduces costs for law librarians without limiting access to users. Collection development within law libraries has undoubtedly changed since the early 2000s. The tight budgets of post-2008 proved the importance of updating acquisition processes. Regardless of whether law librarians choose to onboard demand-driven acquisition, pay-per-view or another form, they must now be vigilant in their spending.

The future of collection development and collection management is certainly digital. Open access, although still evolving, is an economically viable acquisition process that does not limit access to resources due to high costs. In 2012, Brown (2012, p. 137) stated that approximately 20% of published literature was available via open access, and this percentage has no doubt increased since then. This not only has financial benefits for law libraries, but restrictions due to subject area and demand-driven acquisition can be bypassed if the resources are available through open access. In recent years the number of legal journals and publications have increased dramatically in comparison to the reduction in law library budgets (Brown, 2012, p. 138). Despite the potential, questions have risen regarding the sustainability of open access due to its high publishing costs (Beall, 2012). Overall, Lewis (2012, p. 504) states that librarians must “encourage and support” the system to reduce library acquisition costs and ease access to publications. With open access, budgetary restrictions are less of an obstacle. It has come a long way since its establishment and, although it is not yet a completely refined and accessible platform, the potential is exciting.

Technological developments

The early computers of the 1960s quickly became vital to the work of librarians, and as technology grew exponentially in the early 2000s, the processes of collection development and collection management began to change (Corrall, 2012, p.7). Due to this shift within the legal information industry, key legal databases and journals moved much of their content online. This subsequently reduced the size of print collections in many law libraries as the internet gave librarians and users access to legal information elsewhere (Holborn, 2019, p. 84). As law firms compete for clients, it is vital that law librarians are aware of the latest information tools and can pass this knowledge on to lawyers. Law librarians must therefore ensure that their collections are managed in a way that optimises information retrieval for their users.

The mass shift from print to online resources has had a profound effect on the collection development practices of law librarians. E-journals that became popular in the 1990s continued to flourish into the 2000s (Fieldhouse, 2012, p. 32). Alongside journals, books began to be published online and were also deemed extremely popular. However, by 2016 e-book sales began to decline, indicating that purely digital libraries do not always prove satisfactory (Gregory, 2019, p. 3). Hutchinson (2014, p. 581) explains that hardcopy resources are still vital in law libraries however poor interfaces limit the possible advantages of e-books. Law librarians must therefore work with collections that hold both print and digital materials. Interactions with suppliers and vendors have increased dramatically due to the onboarding of diverse resources (Johnson, 2018, p. 139). For law librarians this has meant establishing closer relationships with vendors, such as LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters. Dina (2015, p. 39) states that “vendors are marketers and tend to present attractive bundles with short term cost savings”. Law librarians therefore need to upskill and improve their negotiation techniques to ensure resources are onboarded at the most satisfactory price. Electronic resources also require license agreements to be negotiated. By signing multi-year contracts and establishing a positive relationship with the vendor, law librarians can hope to negotiate an acceptable subscription for both parties (Fishleigh, 2018). The acquisition process has evidently changed significantly since the early 2000s. Although acquisition negotiations are not a new concept for law librarians, the added pressure of onboarding multiple formats with satisfactory license agreements has increased time spent negotiating with vendors.

Other responsibilities have also been influenced by technological changes, causing the collection management process to shift. As digital technologies began to permeate into the information sector law librarians were forced to adapt, with added pressure from users who, in the age of Google, expect information to be distributed immediately (Johnson, 2018, p.43). Hutchinson (2014, p. 587) explains that lawyers “want what they want when they want it whether or not they know what it is they want”. The increased speed in which information can be found online, in comparison to physical books, has led law librarians to invest their time in training lawyers. Gee (2013) found that law librarians take on the bulk of the work in legal research training, demonstrating a shift in how collections are managed. Law librarians have also gained more control over Web 2.0 tools, such as intranets. Multiple librarians can edit and update pages to assist lawyers in accessing the library collection (Gregory, 2019, p. 7). Collection management has certainly evolved since the early 21st century and with that, the role of the law librarian. Evidently technological developments have increased the need for regular training sessions, as well as responsibility for Web 2.0 tools. The concept of collection management is clearly shifting too, with librarians focussed on ensuring access to online resources rather than print alone. Ever-evolving technology has consequently caused collection development and collection management processes and concepts to change.

The future of collection development and collection management is unknown. However, one thing for certain is that the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) will continue to steer practices within law libraries away from those of the early 2000s. In recent years, AI has become more prominent within the legal information sector. In 2017 a chatbot was invented by law librarian Katherine Lowry that could answer questions that lawyers would previously have sent to the library team (Kroski, 2020, p. 161). This is only the beginning, as indicated by the rapid increase in investment. In 2017, investments in legal technologies totalled $233 million, rising to over $1 billion in 2018 (ibid, p. 166). Although many librarians fear that automation will trigger redundancies it in fact allows librarians to focus on meaningful tasks, such as negotiating with vendors and training lawyers, as AI can take on a more administrative role (Philips, 2017, p. 22-23). Librarians are also needed to train the AI systems and ensure that they are working correctly. In the case of technology and AI, collection development and collection management are very different from the start of the century, and with the exponential growth of automation it is impossible to know where the sector will be in another decade’s time.

Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented and has triggered further changes in collection development and collection management. In many ways it has acted as a catalyst to adaptations that were already in the making. Historically the legal sector has been regarded as slow in adapting to change (Davies, 2020, p. 152). However, the pandemic has forced law firms and their libraries to adapt to the new, online working environment. This has not been a smooth transition despite the successes that many librarians have had. Cross (2020, p. 137) explains that although lockdowns were announced in many countries, firms were still “caught off guard at the scale of the changes that lockdown created”.

Working from home has increased in popularity in recent years, however it was not until the national lockdown, which began in March 2020, that it became a permanent position for many law librarians. This transition dramatically altered collection development and collection management processes. Breslin (2020, p. 133) states that print resources within law libraries are like “money sitting on the shelf – or in the postbag – while offices are inaccessible”. This predicament demonstrated the urgent need for online access to information resources, and subsequently assisted librarians in shaping their services around home working (ibid). The shift in print to online resources was already in full swing but with the sudden transition to working away from the library, the Covid-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst in ensuring collections were made available to those working remotely.

As many law libraries were already “morphing away from traditional hard-copy based library tasks”, the pandemic has allowed librarians to continue to evolve in this direction but at an accelerated pace (Cross, 2020, p. 137). Traditionally, lawyers have been considered hesitant to change. However, Breslin (2020, p. 133) found that they “have become more open to new technologies… they have understood the need, and the value, of easy access to information”. Law librarians are now able to prove the requirement for increased e-resources to budget holders. It is no longer a bonus to have online resources but a necessity. Publishers that previously restricted access to their materials, are now offering more free trials and subscription bundles (Hunter, 2020, p. 141). This is not to suggest that vendors are decreasing prices but are aware of the changes in priorities for law libraries. Despite this, there are still occasions when information is only accessible in print, causing frustration for law librarians in managing their collections (Davies, Manning and Wilson, (2020, p. 152). This transition has triggered increased responsibilities. Breslin (2020, p. 135) states that “training really does need to be high on the list of priorities”. With the onboarding of e-resources and databases increasing it is vital that lawyers can navigate and find information independently, expanding the collection development and management tasks for law librarians.

As of writing the Covid-19 pandemic is ongoing, with working from home looking to be a more permanent fixture for many. Law librarians have had to adapt to this new environment and have made it a priority to provide consistent access to information. They have also had to adapt their collection development and collection management processes to fit the continuing, and now accelerated, transition from print to online resources. Davies, Manning and Wilson (2020, p. 154) concisely summarise this shift: it is “hard to imagine the world of knowledge and libraries ever operating again exactly as it did before”.


It is evident that collection development and collection management within law libraries in 2025 will be different from those in 2000. However, similarities remain, and these cannot be discounted as they are defining concepts and processes that define the role of a law library and its collection.

Print resources have not been fully discontinued and their importance has been highlighted. Although accessing a law library’s collection is no longer as simple as browsing shelves, librarians must now engage with increased training to ensure patrons can access their chosen resources. Further, budgets are not a new concept for law librarians. However due to harsher financial restrictions these are now tighter than ever before.

Overall, these similarities are not enough to dismiss the change in collection development and collection management processes and concepts. Acquisition is now drastically different, and far more patron led. Law librarians of the past may have had the ability to purchase resources without justification however now evidence of requirement is needed prior to purchase. Moreover, acquisition now requires lengthy negotiations with vendors to ensure that the best price is obtained. This is due both to reduced budgets and the increase in online subscriptions.

Covid-19 has been the catalyst that no one could have predicted. The pandemic has accelerated many of the aforementioned changes. It is difficult to determine where collection development and collection management will be by 2025. However, technology certainly has a part to play with the rise in open access and AI technology.

To conclude, by 2025 the processes and concepts of collection development and collection management will be evidently different from those in 2000. Although some similarities prevail, the overwhelming observation is of change.

Reference list

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About lyn

Dr Lyn Robinson is Reader in Library & Information Science, and Head of Department at City, University of London. She established and directs the Library School, and co-directs the Centre for Information Science alongside Prof David Bawden. Contact: lyn@city.ac.uk
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