The Importance of Cataloging a Law Library: You Don't Really Own It If You Can't Find It

Joni L. Cassidy

A good classified catalog or subject index is practically indispensable, particularly as a reference guide to legal treatises, monographs and government publications. [...] Minus a good catalog a library loses much of its efficiency, for much valued material remains unknown to library users.

So said Lawrence H. Schmehl, law librarian for the New York County Lawyers Association back in 1959. The explosion in legal publishing over the past 25 years makes his words all the more appropriate today.

The cost and effort of cataloging your library may seem, on first consideration, to be a frivolous expense. That is, until you look more closely at the day-to-day benefits of providing your attorneys and support staff with quick and uniform access to the materials housed in your library and throughout the firm.

By definition, cataloging is the process of examining a book, pamphlet, periodical, audio-book, videotape, CD-ROM product, software package, or remote-access computer file and analyzing its subject content for the purposes of assigning and appropriate classification number and subject heading. Most law collections use the Library of Congress classification scheme and subject headings as their standard. Those elements, together with a complete description of the item in hand, are recorded in a standard format dictated by rules developed by the American Library Association and its international partners.

The end result of this effort will be an online catalog, a book catalog, or a card catalog such as you use in your public library. This catalog will include records for all the materials housed in the library and throughout the firm.

Law firm consultants Julius J. Marke and Richard Sloane wrote: Lawyers hire a librarian simply to avoid the delays and constant frustrations caused by amateur management of their libraries. To ensure quality, accuracy and consistency in the library's catalog, this work should be done by professional librarians (holding a master's degree in library or information science) with expertise in cataloging or technical services. Within the profession of librarianship there are several specialties, including reference, database searching, audio-visual specialists, administration, and cataloging/technical services. Generally most librarians identify their strengths and concentrate their efforts on developing expertise in one area, as do other professionals.

Expecting your reference librarian to catalog your library is akin to asking an electrician to fix the plumbing. It's an entirely different body of knowledge and skills. The application of Library of Congress classification numbers will bring like- and related-subject materials together on the shelf, facilitating easy browsing by the library user. But that classification scheme can be manipulated by a skilled practitioner to better allow attorneys and support staff to research more effectively and efficiently. What a talented cataloger will do is create a profile for the library that aids and accommodates the focus of the firm's practice.

For instance, a firm in which all the estate planning work is done by the tax attorneys will want its trusts and estates materials to be shelved near the tax materials. A good cataloger will make that happen.

But how do you go about finding a good cataloger? Since only a small percentage of library school graduates concentrate on cataloging and only a few catalogers focus on law as a subject specialty, you may want to outsource your library's cataloging and automation to a contract cataloging company. Shop for a company with proven expertise in your subject area. Benefits to law firms of outsourcing include the opportunity to try new ideas, add expertise without adding personnel, and accessing a central source for services and personnel.

Last but not least, is the issue of cost. Law Library Journal's annual “Price index for legal publications” can give an excellent perspective on cost. According to the fall 1994 issue, the mean cost per title for looseleaf services is $891.41. The same amount covers the cost of cataloging and processing 45 unique titles. An average law firm library of 1,000 titles can be cataloged fully, processed (preparing the item for circulation and shelving), and shifted into correct classification number order for the cost of 24 looseleaf services. When you've invested so much money to purchase the books and other research tools themselves, cataloging is a small price to pay to be able to find them when you need them.

Cost Justification

Here's another way of looking at cost justification for cataloging: If one attorney, billing at $150 per hour, wastes 7½ minutes looking for a title because he/she has to scan the shelves or do office searches to determine if the library owns it and then locate it, the cataloging has paid for itself. By way of emphasizing the time wasted on such searches, a librarian at the Social Law Library in Boston recently said it can take up to two hours to find a title in the uncataloged section of its collection.

Besides the obvious timesaving factor there are other advantages to having your law collection cataloged. Cataloging creates an inventory to be used for insurance and replacement purposes. Using an outside contractor for cataloging enables the firm to maintain an off-site copy of its records for disaster planning. Tax consultants agree that a card catalog or online catalog should be considered a tangible asset of a firm, as are the library materials themselves. Since the catalog is a value-adding asset for a firm, the expense of creating such an index tool can be considered a capital investment. Your library is worth it.