The fact that law is the best-documented of the professions is at once a blessing and a curse to Darcy Kirk, associate dean for library and technology and professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
Her job is to acquire and manage exploding quantities of material from a decreasing field of legal publishers, often at less competitive prices. Fortunately she comes armed not only with a J.D. and a Master’s in library science, but also an M.B.A.
Since she started at the University of Connecticut in 1996, Kirk has written about projects to increase public access to law through the Internet and other technologies. The economic benefits of abandoning the high costs of printed materials have a downside, however. Kirk and her colleagues at the American Association of Law Libraries warn that there are risks when law publishers and the courts turn to all-digital publication.
Kirk has served as AALL secretary and is a former president of the Law Librarians of New England. She recently spoke with senior writer Thomas B. Scheffey about challenges facing law libraries in an era of fast-changing information technology.
LAW TRIBUNE: As books and printed materials have increased in price, have law librarians benefited from increasing use of electronic publishing and the Internet?
DARCY KIRK: In terms of primary legal materials — court materials, legislative materials, executive branch materials — we are thrilled that more of that is available online. Our concern is that it won’t be permanently available. … As we know, technology changes, whether it is going from one software to another, or one kind of hardware to another. If the government agency or court doesn’t plan before the current format goes out of use, we could lose the ability to access those publications.
LAW TRIBUNE: Isn’t Internet access a great boon?
KIRK: It’s good that people can get access to materials much more easily. But our concern is that the government or a court agency, publishing online, might run out of space on its hard drive, and decide on its own what to delete. Then, all of a sudden you don’t have it online and you don’t have it in print, either.
LAW TRIBUNE: Right now, in Washington, aren’t there are some very positive new directions being taken?
KIRK: President Obama said he wants the Freedom of Information Act to cover more materials, and to have agencies respond more quickly to providing those materials. We as law librarians want those materials to be online, easily accessible, and also not to have fees or anything hindering the accessibility to the public …
There are often situations when someone is making a decision that records should be confidential, due to privacy concerns, when they also contain valuable information for the public. The National Archives and Records Administration are dealing with these kinds of issues all the time. Law librarians groups were working with them to develop guidelines about information that should be available to the public. The law librarians would weigh in on the side of preserving more information, not less. Here in Hartford, the state library is one of the best in terms of how they keep the legislative records and the court documents — you don’t see that in every state.
LAW TRIBUNE: The Internet search company Google has been making digital copies of books throughout major libraries around the world. Does this project affect the world of law libraries?
KIRK: Google’s [Library Project] is a good thing, but a concern of the library community is that Google is a for-profit entity. We’re not. Google is interested in things that might ultimately make them some money.
LAW TRIBUNE: Can you offer an example of something the American Association of Law Libraries has been working on?
KIRK: We have a government affairs group that lobbies on Capitol Hill about information policy. It’s important that law can be relied upon as the authentic version. One example [of this problem] is that the Connecticut court opinions that you can find online are not “official.” The only official version of the opinions is what appears in print. We would like the online version to be official as well.
The Rules Committee of the Superior Court, or some group representing the court, would have to make that happen. I’ve spoken with people from the court, and we’re moving in that direction.