AALL Boston Program C-3: Law Library Collections Post-Microform: Future Implications for the Newest Legacy Format

Speakers: Laura E. Ray, moderator and coordinator, Cleveland State University, Cleveland Marshall College of Law Library; Jerry Dupont, Law Library Microform Consortium; and Terrence McCormack, The University of Buffalo, State University of New York

“Law Library Collections Post-Microform” was not set up as a debate between its two key speakers. Terrence McCormack and Jerry Dupont actually agreed on key issues, including the importance of foresight in preservation and the role microforms may play in that process. They both criticized the rash decision-making and rushed discard process that leads to the loss of microforms as an archival(?) tool. But although they both spoke to law libraries’ future as a place with fewer (or no) microform holdings, they focused on two different aspects of preparing for this future. McCormack addressed what libraries can and should do on their own, and Dupont dealt with how and why libraries should be working with groups like his own Law Library Microform Consortium (“LLMC”).

McCormack began by telling the audience of his own experiences at the University of Buffalo. His library had a large microform collection, but its microform subscriptions were dwindling for a number of reasons. Manufacturers were no longer making the equipment necessary for reading and printing these materials. Patrons hated using microforms, and microform use did not yield helpful usage statistics. His library canceled many of its microform subscriptions because of their cost and the presence of digital alternatives.

McCormack also highlighted the reasons his library was keeping some subscriptions. Microforms were more durable and reliable than some other media. Additionally, there were some microform subscriptions (including governor’s bill jackets) for which the University of Buffalo was one of the last subscribers.

Nonetheless, the trends with microform were clear. Libraries might maintain their existing microform holdings, but were less likely to add new microforms to their collection. Even if they continued many of their existing microform subscriptions, they were unlikely to add new ones. They were also likely to move more of their microforms into storage.

McCormack stressed the importance of libraries putting together actual plans for how they would deal with microforms in the future, even if that involved eliminating these holdings. These plans should be devised within the context of the library’s overall mission, and they should be incorporated into their collection development policies.

Jerry Dupont spent his time at the podium focusing on his experiences at LLMC and his work with law libraries giving him their materials for archiving. LLMC’s “old” model involved libraries loaning print materials to LLMC for conversion into a microformat. When the print materials were returned to a library, a microform reproduction would be included. LLMC would also make these newly scanned materials available to other libraries.

Nowadays, libraries are more likely to donate materials to LLMC (in the course of their weeding projects) instead of merely lending these materials. Because technology has evolved so much in the past half-century, LLMC’s archiving has moved from a microform focus to a digital focus. Dupont confirmed that there is “no going back” to microforms, citing (as McCormack did) the shrinking availability of microform equipment and maintenance support.

Dupont discussed the importance of redundancy and “backing up” these materials. While LLMC initially intended to back up all scanned materials by creating at least one microform copy, it can no longer keep up with converting all its materials to microformat. LLMC ensures a small amount of material is converted to microform by subcontracting out to another company, but LLMC forgoes this process for most materials as it can no longer handle microform conversion itself.

Dupont stressed that LLMC still takes its archival and “backup” mission seriously, repeatedly referencing an underground storage space in Kansas that LLMC uses for these purposes. LLMC sends donated print materials there after they have been digitized. Microform backups and “master” copies in other formats are also stored there. LLMC also works with online hosting companies to ensure that multiple digital copies of its holdings are stored on geographically separated servers.

Questions at the end of the program for both speakers led to some further warnings about future library practices. Dupont hoped libraries would give LLMC enough lead time as possible (“more than three days”) to consider potential donations, as their commitment to meticulously checking their holdings at the volume and page level took a while. He also warned of overreliance on digital archives, even bringing up a recent example of cyberwarfare (in a non-library context) as a lesson for libraries who are abandoning their microforms too hastily. McCormack pointed out that interlibrary loan of microforms has dropped so precipitously that the only borrowing in that format today is for materials that don’t exist in any other format.

Between both speakers, there was one overall point librarians were meant to take away. Libraries should be putting more thought into discarding both their microforms and older print materials. Instead of discarding titles on an ad hoc basis, libraries should formulate plans of what role microforms will play in their future collections. Instead of discarding older materials in a rushed and rash manner, libraries should contact a group like LLMC to check if adequate coverage of these materials is available to other libraries.

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