Academic Law Librarianship


Rachel Gordon and Jill A. Sturgeon

An important function of law library is to facilitate access to the information housed by the library. The Access Services Librarian performs this essential function, ensuring that patrons have easy and efficient access to the information objects located in the library’s collection, and to the library itself. An Access Services librarian should know and understand the library’s mission, be familiar with the needs of different patron groups, and understand the library’s role in an institution’s larger organization structure. All of these factors influence the policies and procedures the Access Services Librarian will implement in order to maximize patron access to books, spaces, and online materials.

Key Concepts
  • Access Services work requires managing various human and physical resources.
  • The duties of an Access Services position can include managing circulation, customer service, collection up-keep, and supervising volunteers, student workers, para-professionals, and professionals.
  • Understanding patron-focused features of an ILS is crucial for success in this area.

There are many different ways to allocate responsibilities within a law library; a well-organized library system will take the differences in mission, institution, and patrons into consideration in its organizational structure. A savvy administrator will also make the most of their human assets by recognizing the particular talents of the individuals who work for them and making the most of those talents by being flexible with regard to job duties and descriptions. The Access Services role may incorporate all of the duties described in this chapter, or only some of them. It may include responsibilities not mentioned here at all. The fluidity in this role makes it an interesting, opportunity-filled position.

Circulation Management

Integrated Library System (ILS) Management

As the Access Services Librarian, you will likely be responsible for taking charge of physical item circulation. Sometimes these duties are delegated to a “Circulation Librarian” or a member of the staff who is referred to as the “Circulation Manager” or “Circulation Supervisor.” No matter the organizational structure implemented in your library, Access Services, by definition, involves access to the physical materials in the library and is generally part of a library’s Public Services department.

The Access Services Librarian should become proficient with their library’s ILS, but be flexible enough to adapt to new systems, as libraries adopt different ILS systems and may change the ILS for a number of reasons. (Even the term ILS may be shifting to “library management system” (LMS), with systems like FOLIO already adopting this terminology). A capable Access Services Librarian will adapt to ILS updates or complete ILS overhauls by being flexible and willing to learn the new system.  In addition, the adoption of a new ILS system will require the Access Services Librarian to quickly develop expertise and familiarity with the new ILS in order to update circulation procedures and train other staff members.

What does an ILS do?

The ILS is more than just an electronic card catalog. It is the system of organization used by catalogers and metadata librarians for inputting data on each object in the library. It is also the underlying layer of the catalog’s user interface—the database of information that allows a user to search by author or keyword is contained in the ILS. This will be explored in more detail in another chapter.

The key features of the ILS that the Access Services Librarian is responsible for are the patron records. The bibliographic and item records are essentially incidental to their interaction with the patron records from the Access Services Librarian’s perspective. In the role of facilitator between the patron and the library materials, the Access Services Librarian needs to make sure items can be found. Additionally, they need to ensure that the item is returned by patrons so that it can be accessed by future patrons. With thousands of patrons and millions of objects, this would be impossible without the implementation of a sophisticated ILS.

In its most obvious function, the ILS is used at the circulation desk as the system for checking out books. The patrons have records that are accessed by the circulation desk attendant (or by the patron if you have implemented a self-checkout scenario). You can then attach checked-out items to the patron’s record by scanning the item’s barcode. A due date is assigned based on patron type, and the system will generate a receipt. Anyone who has checked out a book at any library is familiar with this process to some extent.

The behind-the-scenes functions are the ones that are uniquely within the purview of the Access Services librarian. For instance, in order to generate a receipt with a due date, loan periods have to be assigned to each patron. Loan rules are complex combinations of item, patron, and circulation rules that determine loan length. Loan rules are often housed in Microsoft Access databases that may be managed by the Access Services Librarian or another group (IT, a systems librarian). The Access Services Librarian is generally responsible for determining the loan rules even if another person updates the database.


At Duke’s Goodson Law Library, they are preparing for a new ILS, and are translating loan rules from one system (ALEPH) to another (FOLIO, which is under development). Analyzing the loan rules and trying to coordinate across a campus with multiple libraries is extremely challenging. The combinations of item type, patron type, and collection circulation rules result in thousands of possibilities.

At Colorado’s Wise Law Library, law faculty and law students have different loan periods, as do public patrons. In addition, loan periods may be assigned by an item’s location, regardless of patron type. For instance, law students are given a uniform due date (at the end of the semester) for all books from the general collection they check out during the semester. Public patrons, on the other hand, get a one-month checkout period for those books from the general collection. Reserve items may only be checked out for four hours, whether they are checked out by a law student or a public patron.

Patron Records

In some cases, the Access Services Librarian, or the desk attendant, will be responsible for creating patron records. Because the Wise Law Library is a state institution, any resident of the state may acquire a public patron account. These are input manually by library staff. It is important for the Access Services Librarian to know how to train workers on creating patron records, and to know how to edit records that have been created. It’s also a good idea to create a quality review check for these manually input records.

The ILS also performs important communication functions, so long as all of the information has been entered correctly. The due date that is assigned to each checked out item triggers a reminder email to go to the email address in the patron’s record. This is another reason why it is important to check the patron records against their account application for accuracy. A typo in the email field would result in the patron failing to receive any of the system-generated communications.

Fines Management

Fines are another issue that the Access Services librarian must manage, and for which the ILS is a useful tool. Fine policies can be dependent on many factors, including everything from the law library administration’s philosophy on fine collection, to working with the bursar for collecting student fines, to state laws on how debts owed to the state must be collected. Even if your library has a policy against collecting fines for overdue books, you may have to deal with billing for unreturned books.

The ILS allows you to create lists based on specific criteria across bibliographic, item, and patron records that can be used for monitoring many things, including money owed. Periodically, the Access Services Librarian can use the ILS to generate a list of patrons who owe money, whether because of fines or because of unreturned books. This can be customized to include only records with bills over a specified amount or for those which have been outstanding for a specified number of days. After you’ve exhausted efforts to get the books returned or fines paid, you may have to begin a collection process.

Enhanced Services for Faculty

Faculty are a core patron group for academic law libraries, and unlike students, do not generally leave after a few years. Access Services Librarians can help enhance faculty support by implementing or maintaining additional services for faculty.


Routing is the delivery of library materials to a faculty member’s office or mailbox. There are two types of routing: periodical routing and delivery of requested books. Periodical routing can be automated in the ILS so that every new issue of a particular journal is flagged for loan to a particular faculty member once it arrives from the publisher. A list of faculty members is affixed to the front of the serial, and faculty can either pass the item to the next patron or return it to the library. This type of routing may be falling out of favor as more libraries cut print periodical subscriptions and require quarantine between patrons. The second type of routing is merely the delivery of requested books to the faculty member’s office or mailbox. This level of heightened service is generally popular with faculty and creates goodwill with minimal effort.

Extended Loan Periods

Another way to enhance the faculty patron experience with minimal effort is to set your loan rules to give an extended loan period. For example, if graduate students get 90-day loans, faculty might get up to a year. Goodson Library coordinates the faculty due dates across all campus libraries for the same day every May to provide a consistent experience.

Automatic Renewals

You might consider using your ILS to renew faculty loans every year so they do not have to worry about them or receive notices. This can be problematic for a few reasons: long careers at the institution, proxy borrowing by assistants, faculty may give books to other faculty and lose track of them, and any account that is not current will not renew, causing confusion. While this can be a great service for faculty, if your faculty are prolific borrowers, consider requiring them to renew their own books online as a confirmation that they still have the books in their possession. Also consider a limit, such as two renewals, to keep track of your physical collection.

Customer Service

One of the most important qualities a librarian can have is an interest in helping people. While this is true of any role in the library, the level of patron interaction at the circulation desk means that Access Services Librarians should be able to both demonstrate and teach good customer service skills.

Welcoming Environment

Good customer service includes providing a welcoming environment. This includes everything from providing a warm and attentive smile when a patron enters to making sure the physical space is tidy and ready for patrons’ use.

If new circulation workers do not have previous customer service experience, it is important to make sure they know your expectations from the beginning. Pushing in chairs and picking up stray pieces of garbage indicates the importance of providing and maintaining a welcoming space as part of the customer service function, not as a separate task.

Tough Customers

Give staff a clear policy of how you want them to address patrons complaining about other patrons, noisy patrons, or patrons who refuse to follow the rules. For the most part, do not expect employees to be trained in conflict management, and recommend they call campus security to deal with disputes between patrons or with patrons who refuse to follow library policies about noise or behavior. However, if you can provide trainings on customer service de-escalation and active harmer training, you provide workers with an additional level of confidence that they can competently handle difficult situations. Most universities and other large institutions may have already compiled such trainings, so it is worth checking if your institution has an online tutorial or can provide in-person safety trainings.

Referrals and directional assistance    

Once new workers understand your customer service philosophy, it is important for them to learn the answers to questions. The circulation desk is often seen as an information center for both the library and the law school. New employees may not be able to immediately learn answers to even the most frequent questions, so it is important to give them access to a repository of information, FAQ’s, or a question bank. This can be in the form of a wiki, a libguide, or a printed manual, but it is important that it is easy to access, up-to-date, and preferably contained in a single location. Having to look through multiple quick answer guides leads to patron interactions that contain neither quickness, nor answers. It is also important for staff to recognize the situations that should be referred to a librarian or other department.

Giving workers tasks around the building can help those without natural curiosity to familiarize themselves with their surroundings. Shelving should give them a general sense of the stacks, while performing headcounts or other types of periodic daily “rounds” that have the workers walk the floor plan of the library will give them a familiarity with the library. Having them return things to the dean’s office, the café, or the admission’s office will expand their knowledge of the building beyond what they see on a map.

Materials Management


An essential function of the Access Services Librarian is providing access to the physical collection, and this includes making it easy for patrons to find books on the shelves. Creating lists of books in “missing” or other problem statuses in the ILS can help you pinpoint problems in your circulation processes. Ideally, though, the Access Services Librarian would be able to determine whether books in the collection have been misplaced or have gone missing before it becomes a problem

The ILS has the functionality to produce a shelf list—this is everything that is located on the shelves, in the order it should be arranged, based on call number. Theoretically, library workers could then take this shelf list and compare what was on the shelf to see whether everything was present and arranged in the correct order. You can imagine the time and attention (not to mention the paper!) needed to do this for a large physical collection. Using a portable barcode scanner, staff can instead collect the barcodes of books on the shelves in order of their placement on the shelf. You can then upload the list of barcodes and the ILS will compare it to its internal shelf list. It can then output a list of errors, identifying specific items that are out of order (misshelved), or that don’t belong in that location. It will also identify books that are missing from the shelves.


Many libraries try to keep order in their stacks by having staff members shelf-read, even assigning particular sections to different staff and requiring them to keep their section’s shelves in order. This activity reduces misshelved books, but does not identify books that are missing, or alert librarians to a book that is in an incorrect status (as in when you locate a checked-out book on the shelves). While either shelf-reading, or an inventory project that requires collecting thousands of barcodes can be time-consuming, either one can provide improved organization of the collection.

Interlibrary Loan

Interlibrary loan in an academic law library is often part of the Access Services Department, and includes lending, borrowing, and document delivery. ILL functions can be performed by the Access Services Librarian, staff, or a combination of the two. Some libraries have students managing ILL. While students can certainly pull books, complete scans, and handle some of the processing, ILL in an academic law library can be difficult, as many times the requests have already routed through the reference desk, and the research component often exceeds the skills of student workers.

Strategic budgeting and monitoring of ILL can help with collection development. Sometimes buying a book is more cost efficient than requesting multiple scans or multiple copies as loans (there may not be loan fees if you have reciprocal partners, but there is always postage). ILL requests can also influence collection development, with close collaboration between the Access Services Librarian and acquisitions staff to determine whether to add a requested item to the permanent collection.

The volume of ILL depends on the size of the law school, the depth of the collection, and the research focus of the faculty. One library might get ten ILL transactions a week and another might consider ten per day to be slow. ILL can also be cyclical. Librarians at schools with multiple law journals often know when the article assignments went out based on ILL volume.

There are different ILL programs, including ILLiad, Tipasa, WorldShare ILL, Relais and many more. The AALL RIPS-SIS ILL Toolkit is a good resource for librarians new to ILL. Goodson library currently uses a combination of ILLiad and Relais. There are also article delivery platforms like RapidILL that may be used in conjunction with more traditional platforms.

Although it may seem like it at times, ILL is not magic. It requires strong research skills, persistence, willingness to communicate outside of standard channels, and creativity. There are some items that you will not be able to get. For example, anything in special collections is handled separately from ILL and must be in a transaction directly between the patron and the archive. Self-published resources are another example of difficult to find items.


Most academic law libraries have a reserve collection. A few have open reserves, where books that are in high demand are separate from the general collection and browsable by patrons. Open reserves can either be used on site without checkout or for a specific, shorter loan period (for example, four hours). Closed reserves are more common, where the reserve collection is in a separate, secure location, often behind the circulation desk, and patrons can check books out for a short loan period. Patrons are generally not allowed to put holds on reserve books as they are available on a first come, first served basis to ensure equitable access. Reserve books are also generally non-renewable, again, to ensure equitable access. There are generally two categories of Reserves in academic law libraries, course reserve and permanent reserve.

Course Reserves

Course reserves are books that are the texts for law school courses. These books help students prepare for class when their copies of books have not arrived or are on backorder, or while they’re waiting for financial aid to clear. They are not meant to replace student book purchases. Some libraries purchase all required and optional texts, some purchase only required texts, and some limit course reserves to 1L courses (the latter is hard to explain to upper level students). Other libraries may rely on donated copies from the professors if the text is not already in the collection.

The Access Services Librarian coordinates with the bookstore or the group that orders textbooks and the Acquisitions Librarian to purchase course reserve books. These orders can usually be expedited, but sometimes circumstances result in the books arriving after the start of the semester. Faculty often appreciate a heads up from the library if this is an issue because students will likely have the same trouble obtaining the book. The faculty member may also be able to post scans of the first few readings.

Concept in Action: During the COVID-19 pandemic, Goodson library scanned and posted the first two weeks of readings for every course to the course page in Sakai, our learning management tool. This was cleared in advance as a non-issue with respect to copyright because students were still expected to buy books, so there was no market harm. We did not scan additional course reserves during the semester.

Permanent Reserve

Permanent reserve is not necessarily permanent, just anything that is kept on reserve for a reason other than being used in a current course. There are several reasons that something might be on permanent reserve, including that it is expensive, out of print (and therefore hard to replace), or in demand. We also use the permanent reserve collection to limit circulation to the law community as other students and faculty at our university cannot check these items out per our loan rules. Some examples of permanent reserves are The Bluebook, one year of each Oxford dictionary, Tribe on Constitutional Law (out of print), current court rules, and current study aids. Many libraries also keep media on permanent reserve in order to confirm all pieces were returned intact, although loan periods may be longer than other reserve materials.


Many law libraries try to stay out of the e-Reserve business because of litigation fears. Options are lending paper copies of the materials faculty want on e-Reserve or letting the faculty member or their assistant post electronic resources on the course management system. The library can facilitate the process by encouraging linking to online resources and providing scans of physical materials within copyright limitations.

Human Resources Management


Training is important for any job. In a library staffed by student workers especially, turnover is ongoing, and frequent. It is important in an environment with high turnover for training to be standardized and consistent. There are, of course, many ways to accomplish a comprehensive, standardized training program, and innovations in training techniques are always attractive ideas. Before you do implement a new training program, make sure you understand the existing program and that you choose to leave out information only after deliberate consideration.

It is difficult and time-consuming to introduce new people to all of the things they are expected to know as the information provider. Again, different Access Services Librarians have approached this in different ways, with video tutorials, wikis, websites, libguides, and checklists, to name a few. Like any instructional activity, your training should have clear objectives. What must the new employee know to begin work? What can be picked up as they go? There are some things that you may want to introduce during training and then revisit periodically. Small details will make more sense once the worker has been in the law library environment for a number of hours.


Staff in academic law libraries are generally non-exempt and paid hourly. This means that they may not work more than 40 hours per week without receiving overtime compensation. Some academic law libraries have unionized staff, which requires familiarity with different management processes. For non-unionized staff, human resources policies and benefits are generally set by the university.


Maggie applies to work at the law library and has a $1500.00 work-study award for the semester. The position pays $12.00 per hour and I want her to work all sixteen weeks of the semester. E.g. $1500 ÷ $12.00 ÷ 16 = 7.8 hours. I can only schedule Maggie for 7.8 hours per week, but should probably stick to 7 or fewer hours. Otherwise, if she picks up any shifts during the semester, Maggie could go over her award and negatively impact the budget.


If you work in a library that is dependent largely on students for its workforce, there are a few points that are particularly applicable to student hiring. The university where you work will have rules and policies for hiring student workers. Some libraries hire law students to work in the library, and others are dependent on undergraduate students as their hiring pool. The school’s student employment office will help you advertise the position. Advertise with incoming students, especially, because you may be able to retain them for their entire university career, cutting down somewhat on the inevitable turnover.

One aspect of student hiring you may have to navigate is federal work study through the financial aid office. Due to budgetary constraints, your library may only be able to hire students with work study awards. You will then have to ensure that you do not schedule the student beyond the hours that can be covered by the award amount


Some libraries have volunteer staff who are not compensated and do not receive benefits. It may be worthwhile to check with local high schools or job training programs to see if they are looking for placement opportunities. This could have the dual benefit of providing job training and community outreach, and of supplementing your staffing needs.


It’s important to understand the fluidity of possible organizational structure and job functions when you take on the role of Access Services Librarian. If you are applying for a job in Access Services, you should pay attention to the list of job duties in the job description, and you should ask a lot of questions about typical duties during the interview once you get one. There are frequently idiosyncrasies between even the same type of library. In an academic law library, Access Services may or may not be involved in managing access to digital materials, interlibrary loan, document delivery, government documents, and the Access Services Librarian may or may not be expected to provide reference services or instruction. However, the fact that Access Services may encompass so many varied activities is one of the position’s most positive aspects and makes it an ideal position for many information professionals.

  • David Armond, Access Services: Linking Patrons to Electronic Legal Research, 19 LEGAL REFERENCE Services Q. 203 (2001).
  • Leigh Hallingby, ILL: Inside and outside the Box, 61 LAW LIBR. Lights 11 (2017).
  • Michael J. Krasulski, Where do They Come From, and how are They Trained?: Professional Education and Training of Access Services Librarians in Academic Libraries, 11 Journal of Access Services 14 (2014) .
  • RIP-SIS ILL Toolkit


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Introduction to Law Librarianship Copyright © 2021 by Rachel Gordon and Jill A. Sturgeon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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