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Letter from the Dean

Fall 2006

Dear Alumni and Friends of Boston College Law School:

Our Law Library is not the institution you remember. No part of the business of legal education has changed as fast over the last decade. We organize and use space differently; we collect more information, in new ways; we offer a much larger array of services to our patrons; and because the work is complex and kaleidoscopic, we require a bigger and more highly educated staff. The success our library has had in meeting these challenges is one of the glories of Boston College Law School.

I’m a sucker for big, pretty, old library reading rooms with leather armchairs, stained glass windows, and quotations from Bracton and Hooker. I wish they could have fireplaces with real fires, though I know that’s impossible. (We can’t even bring hot coffee in.) I’m also a sucker for old cathedrals. When I was little my mother and father took all ten of us to Europe one summer. I remember seeing Notre Dame and St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran and Westminster Abbey, Lourdes and Burgos. For me they had much the same appeal—no armchairs or fires, but they were big, pretty, old, and had a lot of stained glass. And, like library reading rooms, they were places for quiet contemplation.
The thing is, they are both also empty these days. Religion has gone out of fashion in western Europe. Cathedrals are maintained for the sake of tourists rather than worshipers. But we are not building any more of them. (In Europe. In the United States, a more religiously fervent society, we are building mega-churches at a good clip.) Architecture is an effect, not a cause, of social change. People build big churches when their religious practices require it. Beauty alone is not a sufficient reason. It is not right to say, “If you build it, they will come.” It’s the other way around.
The same is true for reading rooms. They are beautiful and I love them, but those are not good enough reasons to build them. At the beginning of the 20th century big reading rooms fit the function of the library and the behavior of library patrons. Books were too expensive for individuals to build their own collections. The way to serve the legal community was to put books in one place and let people come and borrow them. Case reports and statutes that everyone wanted to read (or valuable books that had to be closely guarded) were not allowed to circulate. You had to read them on location. Hence reading rooms.
Not so today. If I want to find what Justice Alito wrote about executive power while sitting on the 3rd Circuit, I click on my Westlaw Sign-On icon, type a search request, choose some cases online, and print them on the Dean’s Office printer. If I have trouble (as I often do), I dial up one of our reference librarians and she walks me through it or delivers what I want. I never touch F.3rd. Other users do as I do. Faculty computers are connected by wire to the library. Students can make wireless connections from anywhere on campus. From home they connect via the internet. Like me, they seldom touch F.3rd. Reading rooms are just as beautiful as ever, but we don’t need them.
That’s not entirely true. There are still the valuable books that you can’t get online and that can’t circulate. For these we have the Coquillette Rare Book Room, a very beautiful space with a large oriental rug and a fireplace (nonfunctioning) that Speaker of the House John McCormack got from the Truman White House. But the room (not counting the storage space in back) is only 20 ft. x 32 ft., because that’s enough to handle the daily traffic.

Notwithstanding what I’ve said about reading rooms, libraries themselves are exploding in size. Ours has ten times more volumes than it did in 1960. It also has ten times more space. The staff has tripled in size. The reason for this is so obvious I feel silly saying it: There may be ten times more law today than there was in 1960. I mean this literally. Law is not like the canon of English literature. Chaucer, Milton, and Shakespeare have stopped writing. Congress has not. Since 1960 the United States Code has grown from ten volumes (with spines of 1”–2”) to thirty-four volumes (with spines of 2”–3” or larger). The Code of Federal Regulations has grown from 5 linear feet to 25 linear feet. Since 1960 we have added the 1964 Civil Rights Act (including Titles VI and VII); the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; the EPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act; Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998; the World Trade Organization; and hundreds of other laws. Whatever may be true of reading rooms, law libraries themselves—the institutions that collect and organize legal materials—grow faster all the time.
In fact, the explosion of law has been so rapid that it may cause us to rethink our bibliographic ambitions. We have long since passed the point where the average library can buy all the serials and monographs that appear each year. We have to make choices, and borrow from other libraries when there is a request for something we don’t have. We also have to substitute electronic for hard copies. This isn’t cheap. One service from BNA will cost us $81,428 this year. And it’s like renting an apartment rather than buying a house: When the year is over you don’t own anything, and if the landlord decides to tear down the building you are out on the street. Still, this approach takes us in the direction where our patrons are going. Students and faculty want electronic resources.

The growth of the law and the changes in format (from paper to electronic) have put new strains on our library staff. The number of library patrons has not grown significantly since 1960. We have 800 students today, and had about the same number back then, counting day and night students. But we need a larger and more sophisticated staff for three reasons. First, because there are so many new legal materials, of so many different kinds, we need some specialization. Professional librarians are already the most highly educated members of our Law School staff. They must have a law degree and an advanced degree in library science. Today, they are likely to have even more highly developed skills in particular areas. To take just one example, as the legal community becomes more international, we may need an expert in some kinds of foreign law. Second, new formats for collecting legal information require new tools and methods for doing legal research. The Law School’s 1960’s graduates learned the West key number system and the Index to Legal Periodicals. High tech back then meant microfiche readers. Today, we have a dizzying array of electronic databases and search engines, and teaching students how to use them is a very complicated process.
The digital revolution has had such an impact on our library that we have chosen to center the Law School’s entire IT staff there. These five people manage the purchase and replacement of computers, install and educate administrators in the operation of software for admissions, career services, academic services, alumni and development, and our clinical programs. They handle our email communication system, our phones, and (for some people) our Blackberries. They have custody of the Law School’s servers. And in recent years they have taken responsibility for loading Law School software onto students’ computers and curing viruses and bugs that get spread within the Law School community.

There is a stereotype of librarians that is used to good effect in plays like The Music Man—quiet, bespectacled, book-hoarding administrators bothered by their patrons. Nothing could be further from the truth. Modern law libraries are incredibly dynamic, and the management of them requires more foresight and skill than perhaps any other part of the legal academy.


John H. Garvey