By Alice Tyson, Access Librarian, IALS Library
IALS Library, like so many other libraries, is currently closed; yet in many ways, it is still open.
It is true that our physical building is shut, meaning we cannot access our many thousands of print books, but that doesn’t mean all library activity has to cease. As Access Librarian at IALS Library, over the last few weeks I have been asked by family and friends whether I still have work to do with the library closed. The answer is a resounding YES! The wonders of modern technology mean that the IALS librarians are still working hard to support our users, even whilst unable to set foot in the building. This has prompted some reflections on what it is that makes a law library.
The print collections
Ask someone to think about a library and they will probably conjure up an image of books, neatly arranged on shelves. Physical collections are a very important part of most libraries. Print is still the dominant method of publication for scholarly books. Academic libraries like IALS value print as a stable, long-term way of preserving information for use by current and future generations of researchers. Various media have come and gone – who remembers floppy disks? – but the printed word has remained a time-tested format. The current closure of libraries has thrown the continuing importance of print into stark relief, as many researchers discover that the book they need to consult was never published as an e-book, or the 20th century thesis that they want to reference has never been digitised. Print collections are clearly part of our understanding of libraries.
All those books need a home; the library as a place is important too. It is where the collections are kept, but it also has a crucial role as a space where our members can come to get on with work with minimal interruptions. This is something many of us will be missing at the moment, as we strive to be productive despite the myriad distractions in our own homes. At IALS Library we work hard to maintain a quiet and scholarly atmosphere for legal research. That kind of environment is often hard to find in a busy city. The very existence of the library as a space is another important component of how we understand the meaning of libraries.
However much we might wish we could, we can’t all recreate a physical library in our own homes. All is not lost however; anyone who has visited a law library in the last couple of decades cannot have failed to realise how much crucial content is now available online. Digital resources have not replaced the need for print – not everything is available online and not all electronic materials are made available universally. However, many e-books, e-journals, law reports, pieces of legislation and other legal materials are now available through reliable and authoritative online sources.
Often digital resources will do more than print can. Digital platforms can go beyond the simple presentation of a case or act, they add value by telling us if the case is still good law, or if the act has been amended. Can you imagine walking into a law library and being told you have to update an act using printed chronological tables, or that there are no journal databases and instead you must use a print index? This world is likely to be unrecognisable to the majority of current legal researchers.
Digital resources are evidently part of our modern notion of the law library, but there is still something (or someone) missing from this picture.
Imagine the chaos of a law library with no cataloguers – how would you know where to find a specific book? And just think of a library with no reference staff – users would have nobody to turn to for advice when struggling to find the legislation or case they are searching for. Librarians, whose job it is to connect users with the information they need, are also an important part of law libraries.
The good news is that, although you can take the librarian out of the library, you can’t take the library out of the librarian. As mentioned above, being a librarian is about connecting people with the information they need, whatever form that information takes.
How are the IALS Librarians are responding to the closure of our building?
During the current extraordinary circumstances, we cannot offer our members those first two components of the library; the print collections and the physical space. However, there is still much that we can do to get our users the information they require.
Our Admissions team have done a wonderful job registering new members, enabling them to access many of our subscription resources online.
Our Information Resources team have done amazing work building up our digital collections over the last few years. They continue to make sure that you can find the e-books and e-journals you need through the library catalogue, to make sure access to all of our law databases continues uninterrupted, and in some cases they have even been organising expanded access to our existing subscriptions.
The Academic Services team are answering your reference questions via email and updating our library guides to help you navigate the many free and subscription online legal resources.
Our IALS Digital librarians are working extra hard to ensure that all of our online resources and systems are running smoothly, so you can access the information you need, when you need it.
To conclude, let us go back to the beginning. The title of this blog post contains the statement “The library is closed”. After reflecting on the constituents that are needed to create a library, I would modify that statement to read instead, “The library is closed (somewhat)”. We look forward to seeing our members again when we can re-open, in the meantime you can get in touch with your librarians by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Helpful library links
IALS Library catalogue (contains thousands of e-books and e-journals)
Electronic Law Library (for offsite access to subscription databases)
Online Legal Resources (a guide to open access and other free online legal research resources)
Expanded database access during coronavirus pandemic (IALS Library page detailing what additional access to subscription databases is being made available)