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April 03, 2007

No Shark in Library Changes

By Nate Kurtis

As law students, we have all had to research and study in the Law Library –and there are those of us who seem to never leave…. Given how important the library is to our daily lives, it is practically criminal how little we know about just what goes on down there. (It’s not Vegas, you know. What happens in the Law Library does not have to stay in the Law Library.) To help solve this dearth of knowledge, we started asking around with the people down there, but they kept shushing us. So, instead, we sat down with Margaret Leary, a librarian and Director of the Law Library.


Res Gestae: Let’s just get some stats out of the way first: the Library website says there are 25 miles of books here. Is that end to end, pages –what are we talking about?

Margaret Leary: That is miles of shelving in the library.

RG: Miles of shelving?

ML: Miles of shelving that have books on them. So, if you put the books, just as they are on the shelves, and somehow got all the shelves stretched out it would be 25 miles long. It’s a lot of books; it is well over 600,000 printed volumes.

RG: And expanding how fast?

ML: Well, that gets more complicated. We add about ten or eleven thousand volumes a year, but we also take volumes out. We take volumes out for two reasons: one is that they get replaced by other things, for example the advanced sheets of reporter volumes get replaced by bound volumes. The second reason we take things out is that we are reducing the size of the paper collection very deliberatively. We are taking out duplicate copies of things. Over the course of years, we have reduced the number of copies of the national reporter system –when I came here a long time ago we maybe had ten copies of the national reporter system, now we have one or two. We are eliminating duplicate copies of law reviews. As material gets more and more available online, our policy is that we keep what we need in print to satisfy the demand for the print; but, to use law reviews as an example, once those all became available in PDF on HeinOnline we really only need one or two paper copies to own forever.

RG: I hear that you are in the process of completely reorganizing those 25 miles of books. How long will that take? And, why are you bothering to shuffle around 25 miles of books in the first place?

ML: It’s going to take a long time, but I really hope we’ll be done at the end of ’09, and possibly ’08. The reason we’re doing it is to make things easier for everyone who uses the library, to make it easier to browse our library by topic. Right now, for example, the treatise collection is arranged alphabetically by the author’s last name, which is not very helpful if what you are really looking for is a range of books on criminal procedure, for example. A secondary benefit, that won’t be so visible to users, will be that each item will have its own unique call number on the spine. There are thousands of volumes in this library that don’t have that, which makes it hard for us to reshelve them and keep them in the right place, which in turn makes it hard for our patrons to find the resources they need.

RG: So far we’ve just been talking about research materials, but that isn’t the only reason people come to the library. Are there any plans to make the library a better place to study, and especially do group work?

ML: The first step in doing anything like that is find out what people really want, and that step is a little tricky because of course we have a lot of students, and they don’t always want the same things. We held two focus groups this winter and invited students to come and share their thoughts. We’ve also been looking at other libraries.

What we hope to do is keep this a quiet place to study, in general. When we do anything that is noisy, we always get complaints. When students and patrons who are using the library are noisy, we get complaints. So, we know we need to keep a large area that is quiet. But, we also know that students really do want to work in groups. So, we need areas were people can gather as a group and talk to each other. We have the two study rooms on sub-three, which are heavily used, especially during exam times, and we want to create some additional areas that are like that. One place we are thinking of is the area on sub-one behind the reference desk. That area is already glassed in, so the noise created there would be confined to that space, and we think we can take all the books out and add in some tables and comfortable chairs and make that a place where noise is allowed.

That is a short term project. Longer term, and I recognize that the Law School’s need for a whole new building comes first so I’m not telling you something I think is going to happen tomorrow, but I think it would be possible to reorganize the way space is used in this building, and look at the building as a whole and think about all the needs we have and how they’ve changed. For example, students don’t want as many private carols as we have. Those were an idea that was popular in the 1970s, but now we are in a whole other century and students want to have more comfortable seating and places where they can talk together, or just sit without being all closed in by a carol. We are also looking around to find places where we might put more comfortable lounge seating like what we used to have in the sub-three lounge. Before we turned it into a computer lab it was very dimly lit and had really giant, comfortable chairs, and was a very nice place to take a nap. Not that we are necessarily looking to make a napping area.

RG: I think we need one!

ML: We may need one, but maybe not in these nice, bright subs. We also want to make sure we have electrical outlets everywhere students need them. I’d be very interested in any ideas students have. They can e-mail me (mleary@umich.edu), or just walk in.

RG: You mentioned more electronic resources, but I always have trouble finding them. Any chance you are going to reorganize those while you’re at it with the books?

ML: Yes. This gets to the question of our website. I’d love to show you now, but it wouldn’t be a very good interview. I guess, what, you’d put: “big empty space while Nate looks at the website.” We have thousands of resources on our website that are organized and categorized and searchable for you to use. But, the trouble is, you look at our home page and who knows that there are thousands of resources underneath there?

We are working right now to revise our website. What I would like our website to do is to be organized for the benefit of students. When we first developed the website maybe five, ten years ago, we didn’t have a particular audience in mind, we wanted it to be helpful to everybody, and we still want that. But I would love for the library website to be the place where students go for information they need, not just to write a research paper or solve a clinic problem, but if you need information about choosing courses, or finding a job.

I would love for our website to be a place where law students go to find a sense of community –just as they come to the library to find a place to study. We could have more study aids on the website, and we could maybe have something like a wiki where students could help build resource guides for different classes. Now, the librarians have already made some of those, but maybe student-made ones would be more meaningful or useful to students. And maybe also a tab that says ‘PDF Web Sources,’ because if you have a pdf, you don’t have to go back to the paper to do blue book. That would be another way to get to those resources. Maybe a tab for 1Ls that focuses on what 1Ls really need to know: what are law exams really like? What are good books to help you understand how to study for exams? Other things they want to know.

RG: Are the rumors true that the library tour is being redone?

ML: Are those rampant rumors?

RG: Not really.

ML: Yes, we are redoing the tour. One of the pieces of advice we repeatedly got was: dumb it down, make it simpler. We are going to break it up into smaller parts and make a lot more of it virtual instead of walking around. We’re also going to make it easier to take it in small bites, so if all you need is to figure out the paper digests then you can just do that part without doing the whole thing.

RG: Does the library currently have any other long term plans in the works?

ML: A giant thing that I hope we can do in the law library, and this is a little farther down the road, is I really would like us to take part in the Google Books project. The University Library is a path breaker on that, and the contract is with the University of Michigan and not just with the university libraries, so the law library could participate in that. We have a very rich and deep collection in foreign comparative and international law, as well as federal law and law of the us states and the colonies that proceeded them. To get our collection completely digitized by Google would be an absolute boon. It would be great for our patrons, and it would be great for people all over the world. There are still copyright problems, but we can figure out ways to solve those problems, and there is a lot of material that is not copyrighted.

RG: Well now, books and electronic resources and study areas are all well and good, but what about some of the more daring suggestions that folks have made for improving the library? I’m referring to ideas such as putting a shark in the light well or a swimming pool in sub-three.

ML: [laughs] Now you’ve got me; I forgot to give you a disclaimer at the beginning of the interview: I’m humor impaired. The shark…eh… I don’t like the idea of a shark in the light well because I don’t like the idea of putting water in that light well because I don’t want that light well to start leaking. And, what was the second one? A swimming pool? Yeah, well you could have that. You could just turn off that sunk pump. I don’t think you’d want to swim then, though. I’d rather have the people and books there myself.

RG: You could still have people and books.

ML: Where would the swimming pool be?

RG: Well, that would be what they are floating on.

ML: Oh! Everything on a raft? Well, that would make it easier to reorganize the collection; put the books on the rafts and shift the rafts around. You’d have to get some really good waterproof rafts….