Academic Law Librarianship


Erin Grimes Jason LeMay Jaime Valenzuela

Erin E. Grimes; Jason LeMay; and Jaime Valenzuela

Within the academic law library, special collections and archives offer law librarians an opportunity for interesting specialization. Special collection librarians and archivists work with the most delicate aspects of the law library collection, and they uphold the tremendous responsibilities of preservation and promotion of the collection. This chapter will introduce the world of special collections and archives within the law library setting, including an overview of the professions, considerations for maintaining the collection, opportunities for marketing and outreach, and sources for education and development. Although special collections and archives often rest beneath the law library’s surface, the collections and those who work with them prove an integral and valuable part of the institution.

Key Concepts
  • Special collections and archives are specific to each organization and may vary depending on the library’s collection focus.
  • Special collections and archives require special considerations related to collection development, preservation, and usage of materials.
  • Special collections and archives tend to be more hidden than other library collections and are dependent on adequate marketing and outreach to gain users.

Introduction to Special Collections

This section discusses working in special collections and archives in academic law libraries. The role of a librarian working in academic special collections and archives in the legal profession is dynamic, as the range of responsibilities and options for involvement and development are profound. Special collections and archives provide value to the law library by preserving the university’s institutional history, supporting student and faculty scholarship, and engaging with the community. Special collections librarians and archivists endeavor to ensure the continued acquisition, assessment, preservation, accessibility, and use of these important collections for present and future scholars.

Archives in Law Libraries

Archives emerge every day when a person, organization, or government creates and keeps a record of their actions. The term “archive” can refer to records themselves, the organization that houses the records, or the building holding the records. Archives contain recorded material that has long-term permanent value for the organization. In a law library, archives collect materials related to the school. For example, academic archives may include academic policies, meeting minutes, school bulletins, photographs, legal documents, and blueprints.

Archivists may have many roles in the law library, but they are ultimately responsible for assessing, collecting, organizing, preserving, and providing access to the records in an archive. Archivists evaluate materials for the collection, put the items in historical context, and arrange the items based on archival principles of provenance and original order. Archivists also assist researchers in navigating the archive’s distinct organization scheme.

Within a law library setting, an archivist may have a dual role as a law librarian. Archivists may have an additional role in access services, metadata, reference or research services, instruction, or outreach. Assuming an archivists’ role in a law library presents a challenging and rewarding position within the law library.

Rare Books in Law Libraries

Rare books are books that are scarce or otherwise limited in availability. Though they tend to be old, it is important to realize that rarity is not based on age. Books published in recent decades may have been printed in limited runs, superseded by later editions, or inscribed by a notable person. A well-built collection of rare books can draw researchers from around the world, enhancing a law school’s reputation. However, building rare book collections from scratch is a process that typically takes years. Rare book collections are often focused on particular subject areas, but other criteria may also be used to build collections. Libraries often curate several smaller collections. Small collections may be collocated together or housed separately, depending on the overall size of the collections, the subjects they cover, and the library’s needs.

Subject area collections are easiest to collocate using a standard classification system, such as the Library of Congress Classification. Law schools are often known for specializing in specific legal areas, and these specialties can create a natural focal point for rare book collections. Other criteria may also be used to build a collection of rare books. For example, author collections focus on the works of a person—such as Gratian, Grotius, or Blackstone. A collection could also be developed based on a type of work, such as dissertations, law dictionaries, or treatises.

Regardless of the criteria used to build a collection, it is necessary to consider the potential number of volumes that exist within the scope. If the criteria are too broad, forming a complete collection may be impossible. A larger collection comes with additional challenges to building the collection, due to prohibitive costs and limited available space. Finally, it is vital to have the support of leadership from both the law library and the law school. Building collections that align with the law school’s research can help garner the leadership’s favor, as can working closely with faculty to determine their needs from the collection.

Other Special Collections

Archives and rare book collections are typical “special collections.” But what, exactly, makes a collection special? Almost any cohesive collection in a library could be treated as a special collection if considered important enough to the library to provide extra attention in curation and preservation. For example, state primary resources, government documents, and complete sets of titles, such as the national reporters, could all be considered special collections. This section describes two types of special collections: personal libraries and digital collections.

Personal libraries and collections donated to a library may not warrant any special treatment. Retiring lawyers often offer to donate their personal library or papers to avoid discarding them. If a person is notable within the community, however, special treatment may be warranted. A notable person could be a prominent alumnus, a well-respected member of the community, or even a Supreme Court justice. If a person is well known and respected, the donation or bequest of that person’s library to a law library can be a special event. While the individual volumes may not be rare, the provenance makes replacement of those volumes impossible.

Digital collections in a law library may include curated and digitized collections of photographs or documents, electronic dissertations, or digital repositories of faculty scholarship. Technological knowledge is vital to understanding the systems used to store, access, and maintain these resources, and legal knowledge of copyright issues is also beneficial.

Not every library will consider personal libraries or digital collections as “true” special collections. However, the specialized knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and provide access to these collections may require additional assessment of the items, separate from the library’s general collections. These considerations must be taken into account when determining the scope of the law library’s special collection and archives.

Essentials of Special Collections

Duties in special collections and archives are comprised of the essential areas of law librarianship, including collection development, donations/gifts/bequests, organization, preservation, and access /use policies. Collectively, each piece is equally important to the value of special collections and archives. This section will highlight some of the intricacies involved in these particular areas of law librarianship.

Collection Development

Collection development encompasses the procedures and policies that inform which materials are collected for their enduring value and explain why some materials hold more value than others. Materials acquired for special collections or archives should support the mission of the library and aim to serve the library’s primary audience. In order to acquire appropriate material, a law librarian must know what is and is not collected in their respective library. If the scope of a collection is defined by a mission statement and a collection policy, appraisal and purchasing of material is greatly informed.

A special collection and archive mission statement informs the purpose of the collection. A mission statement may be concise and should allow flexibility for revision if collection parameters change in the future. The amount of material a law librarian can collect is vast, making a collection policy a necessity. A policy should detail which subject areas are collected, the formats acquired, and an outline of what is not collected. These parameters help address issues such as holdings space, and they provide a law librarian the ability to say no to a donor.

Acquisitions are closely tied to collection development. Acquisitions can range from purchasing new items to obtaining archival material from a donor. When procuring new material, it is good to be informed by a collection policy and to be aware of the time and effort it may take to process acquired material. If staffing is limited, it may be best to limit the amount of material considered for acquisition.

Donations, Gifts, & Bequests

Donations are one of the best ways to grow a special collection, and a portion of the collection’s holdings was likely built from such contributions. A law librarian should expect that their primary donors will be law school faculty, alumni and their families, and members of the local law community. Most donors believe that what they are donating is worth preserving and sharing with others. Dealing with donors can be difficult, depending on the status of the donor and their emotional attachment to the potentially donated material. A donor’s status and any emotional attachment to the material, though respected, should not be the basis for adding donations to a collection.

A donation or gift, often in the form of a physical resource, is the transfer of material from one party to another without monetary exchange. A bequest is a similar transfer, but the exchange is done formally through a will. However, gifts are not always received formally. When faculty members clean out their offices, they often leave books to the library. The librarian should review the books for addition to special collections, but obtaining formal documentation for such material is not always necessary. When such transactions occur with someone outside of the law library, a deed of gift should accompany the gift.

The deed of gift is the documentation that legally transfers material from an outside party to the library, and it should define any access or use restrictions related to the gift. Gifted items may contain sensitive material that the donor may not want shared with the public for a period of time. If a donor has unrealistic expectations regarding access and use of the material, a donation should not be accepted. Establishing mutually beneficial parameters for collection in the deed of gift can help satisfy both parties, especially in the area of access and use.


A patron brought in some books to donate from her grandfather’s collection. In reviewing the books, Emilio could see that they were former, deaccessioned library volumes. They did not contain any form of inscriptions, the books were in poor condition, and the subject matter, though law-related, was very general. The library’s collection policy, which Emilio said the patron could view online, described the subject areas collected by special collections and the need for material to be in good physical condition.

Emilio explained to the patron that the material they brought in did not fit the library’s collection criteria. Emilio cited the subject areas that were collected, space considerations for the library, and a need for unique material. Emilio thanked the patron for taking the time to bring in their materials and to please keep the library in mind for any future donations as subject areas collected may change in the future.

How long material remains in the collection should also be addressed in the deed of gift and the collection policy. For example, a valued item of the past may not fit collection parameters in the future. A library must have the ability to deaccession material as it sees fit, and such action can be stipulated in the deed of gift. Notably, most libraries do not offer to place a monetary value on incoming material, though this too may be specified in both the deed of gift and the collection policy. When the library accepts a gift into a collection, it is customary to send a thank you letter to the donor. The benefit of this practice is twofold: the letter can serve as a receipt, and it further establishes the relationship between the donor and the archive.


For special collections to have and provide value, researchers must be able to find the resources. General library resources are typically browsable in open stacks, but many special collections are in restricted access areas to protect the materials. Likewise, digital collections would be difficult to use without some way to find those items that satisfy a user’s needs. For this reason, special collections librarians and archivists need to be aware of the tools available for making these collections discoverable by users.

Most law libraries will already have a library catalog. Books, whether rare or otherwise special, are prime candidates for being described in a library catalog. In some libraries, archival resources may also be included in the library catalog. If included, the catalog broadly describes the archival collection and directs users to the archive collection finding aids.

Finding aids are like library catalogs but are used to provide more detailed descriptions of materials contained in an archival collection. Archival materials are often of varied types that are not as well suited to traditional library cataloging. Instead, like material is described in a hierarchy from series (broad) to subseries (specific). For example, a thank you note from a law clerk to a judge would not be described individually but would be described collectively with similar correspondence. Such material would be stored in archival quality folders and boxes, and the finding aid would direct users to the appropriate boxes for such correspondence.

Once materials are described in a catalog or finding aid, they must be processed to allow library staff to locate the material sought by a researcher. Descriptions will generally provide information the researcher may use to find the material—a call number for a book or an archival box identifier. The items must be marked and appropriately filed for retrieval. Because of the nature of special collection resources, librarians must avoid directly applying labels to the materials or documents. Light pencil marking of paper or use of a special strip of paperboard for marking information are good practices to prevent permanent damage.


Special collections and archives have little value to an organization if the materials are not kept in good condition. Preservation is a vital function of special collection librarianship in order to keep these research materials in usable condition for the long term. Environmental conditions, maintenance needs, and preservation of the contents of special collections materials all need to be considered.

Environmental conditions are often the first and most visible issue to address when working to preserve materials in a special collection. Light can be an immediate concern, especially unfiltered sunlight. Bright light can cause irreversible fading of exposed text, photographs, and artwork. In addition to light, temperature and humidity levels can adversely affect many types of materials. Ideally, a location selected for special collections and archives would have dedicated climate control, separate from that of the main building. Since this is not often possible, potential collection locations should be evaluated with an eye towards the environment’s stability.

Collections housed in a suitable environment still require regular maintenance to ensure a long, useful life. Older books may have red rot, a condition in which the leather covering begins to break down. Photographs and negatives tend to break down over time. Some maintenance, such as using generic phase boxes or archival boxes, can be done with minimal formal training. More specialized maintenance may require professional treatment. In an academic law library setting, there may be a preservation unit at the main university library that can guide maintenance and repairs. If not, the librarian may consult an outside organization for additional services.

Although some materials may be in poor condition, they may be unique and nevertheless require preservation. In dire cases, preserving the material’s contents may be the only viable option. High-resolution document scanners may be used to digitize documents, books, and photographs at risk of deterioration. Conversion of computer and audiovisual media to modern formats can preserve the data of these resources. Digital resources must be backed up to protect the material in case the original version is lost or damaged.

Preservation and maintenance are essential to ensure that special collection or archive materials are useful for the longest possible time. If a resource is so fragile that no researcher can use it, there is no value in having the item in the collection. Preserving the material’s contents allows researchers to access items that are too fragile to be handled. With proper maintenance and preservation, a collection’s resources may be perpetually available to researchers.

Access & Use

Generally, special collections and archives are available to researchers, scholars, and the public. It is necessary to establish and enforce an access policy for the special collections and archives to ensure that the materials are available for present and future requests. However, not all parts of a special collection are available to researchers. In academia, special collections and archives follow the policies established by the university, law school, and librarians to protect administrative information. Items may be restricted fully or partially based on copyright issues, donor requirements, or legally protected information.

Special collections librarians and archivists work with unique, delicate, and sometimes valuable items in the collection. As a result, these collections are susceptible to neglect, natural disasters, and theft. Establishing an access policy for how patrons use the collections reduces the risk of theft or damage. For example, it is common to prohibit food, drink, backpacks, and pens in special collections areas during research. Access policies are also helpful in handling patron requests for photoduplication of materials. Such a policy can set guidelines and rules for scanning requirements, costs charged for duplication, image quality available, and restrictions on the materials.

Finally, a special collections librarian and archivist must consider the threat of legal issues, particularly copyright infringement. U.S. Copyright law governs copyrighted material. When acquiring materials, the librarian must consider that, despite the sale or donation, the author may still retain the creative rights to the material. Doctrines of Fair Use and The Right of First Sale typically protect a range of uses of the material, including research and private display. However, these protections may not transfer when bringing these documents into the digital realm. The Copyright Act of 1976 did not foresee these technological issues and struggles to keep up with the rapid changes, leaving it to the librarians to look to best practices.

Marketing & Outreach

Materials of enduring value should be showcased and promoted. They have the power to inform and visually deliver wonder. Without exposure, special collections and archives can languish undiscovered and remain hidden in plain sight. This section highlights how law librarians can add value to special collections and archives by curating exhibits, performing outreach, and collaborating with others.

Curating Exhibits

An exhibit showcases materials found in special collections. They can be large or small and highlight a single item or an entire collection. Exhibits often have a theme, and the materials curated are based on that theme. Alternatively, materials of interest might inform the theme of an exhibit. Subjects can range from current events and faculty interest to the upcoming law school homecoming event. All exhibits should be created with the primary audience of the law library in mind, and they should serve to educate them about the special collections available at the library.

When curating a physical exhibit, consider the physical space, security, and preservation concerns relevant to the display. Lockable exhibit cases are typically preferred for displaying materials. Exhibit cases should be in a location where they are readily visible but also protected from environmental concerns such as direct sunlight. Some items may rapidly deteriorate in a less controlled environment, so care must be exercised during curation. Choosing appropriate display tools such as book supports will aid in preserving the exhibited materials.

Digital exhibits are exhibits that are published online. They highlight physical items from a collection in a digital format and can broaden the audience beyond the library walls. The physical condition of an item and its medium will influence whether an item can be digitized. Still, digitization is generally less damaging to many materials than a long-term physical display. Three-dimensional objects can be photographed, and papers can be scanned. Those items will serve as the foundation of a digital exhibit. Web publishing platforms such as Omeka or WordPress can be used to create basic digital exhibits that include text descriptions and metadata to facilitate the understanding of digital media.

Exhibits provide an opportunity to educate the library’s users about the available special collections. Text panels or descriptions that accompany display materials inform viewers about the specific material, regardless of whether the display is physical or digital. A well-constructed description will be informative, engaging, and short. The ultimate purpose is to keep the viewer engaged, allowing them to learn about the exhibit and the treasures that they may not have been aware existed in the library.


There will not be a greater advocate for special collections and archives than the law librarian who works with those collections. Outreach activities allow the librarian an opportunity to directly market these collections to the users in the best position to use them, the law school’s faculty and students. While exhibits can be considered a form of outreach, this section deals with the need to perform more direct outreach with potential users and researchers.

A law school’s faculty members should be considered individually for potential outreach. Outreach activities with faculty should be more direct than they might be with others. Identification of courses and faculty research areas allows the librarian to recognize which faculty members to approach and which collections may be useful to them. The goal is to expose these faculty members to the materials that might directly support their teaching or research activities.

Students are the second group of potential users, and reaching out to them is more effective in group settings. Special collections have the best potential for students writing papers and articles, either as part of a seminar or for a journal. For appropriate seminars, outreach with the faculty provides the best potential access to the students. For others, scheduling a small group lecture or presentation may provide a means to draw students in, especially if the session offers free food to bring them in the door.

Outreach to students and faculty is essential to gaining active users and new advocates for the library’s special collections. Each group will require unique methods to garner their interest. Gaining researchers outside of one’s law school is valuable for the library and collection’s reputation, but local users are the library’s primary audience and must be the library’s collection focus.


Special collections librarians and archivists often work with other departments in the law library and the library community to support the school’s mission, promote student and faculty scholarship, and elevate the profession. These collaborations can bring considerable attention to the law school’s special collections and archives.

Libraries, archives, and special collections are natural collaborators, especially when they support the same academic institution’s goals. Special collections librarians and archivists work with the law library on issues of digital initiatives, digital repositories, collection development, access services, and inter-library partnerships.

Special collections librarians and archivists can also collaborate by sitting on department programs, committees, and instruction teams. They work with campus groups to focus on social issues, and they bring prominence to previously unheard voices and ideas through programming and displays.

Special collections librarians and archivists can also work with libraries, archives, and special collections outside of the parent institution. These collaborations may include supporting programs and education, pooling resources, or engaging in professional development.

Alumni services also put on events to honor former faculty, donors, and alumni. These events find value in having archival materials to bring history and remembrance to the occasion. Archivists work closely with alumni services to decide the appropriate materials and display for alumni events.

Education & Development

There are a variety of ways to gain and increase knowledge in special collections and archives. In this section, we will focus on formal instruction, professional development/continuing education, and on-the-job training. While not intended to be all-encompassing, this section will help identify areas for learning more about this part of law librarianship.

Formal Instruction

For most contemplating working in the academic law library profession, a master’s degree from an American Library Association (ALA) accredited library school is essential. Such a degree can be obtained entirely online and in as little as a year and a half. Furthermore, many library programs offer degree specializations, such as archival studies or digital information management. Specializations may be available through online or on-site programs, and they may be obtained as part of one’s degree or as a post-degree certificate.

Degree specializations and certificates may enrich one’s general library education with a focused exploration of a subject area. Concentrations provide both the time and exposure one needs to gain a greater understanding of essential archival practices such as preservation and organization. Often, archival fundamentals are merely introduced within foundational library courses. For example, the finding aid may be introduced in a general library course, though one may not learn about original order without a degree specialization.

While library and information science degree programs are the most typical form of formal education, there are others as well. One of the best-known non-degree programs for special collections is Rare Book School (RBS) at the University of Virginia. Admission to RBS courses requires an application process, and most courses are limited to a dozen students. Once admitted, students have the opportunity to learn through one-week, non-credit courses on topics ranging from bookbinding to born-digital materials. RBS classes are held on-site, allowing for intensive instruction and hands-on experience supplemented by extensive reading and “take-home” assignments. The faculty at RBS have substantial professional experience, and many are considered experts in their field.

The law librarian who finds themselves frequently working with archival material may wish to become a certified archivist. To do so, one must satisfy specific criteria, such as years of professional experience, and they must formally pass the Certified Archivists Exam. The Academy of Certified Archivists administers the test annually at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) annual conference. An application fee is required, and an exam handbook is available for free online for those seeking to study.

Professional Development & Continued Education

Professional development provides librarians with opportunities to learn new skills or to enhance existing ones. Professional organizations such as the American Library Association (ALA), the American Association of Law Librarians (AALL), and the SAA provide members with a variety of educational opportunities. General organizations, such as ALA and AALL, will have smaller sections or divisions that focus on narrower areas, such as the Legal History and Rare Books Special Interest Section (LHRB-SIS) of AALL.

Many professional organizations have one or more annual conferences or meetings. These conferences usually feature a variety of educational sessions developed and presented by members of the organization. Because these sessions are typically provided by one’s peers from other institutions, there is generally less formality and more opportunity for attendees to interact. Sessions usually reserve a reasonable period for questions, and presenters are often available afterward for more follow-up questions.

Outside of the annual conferences, many organizations offer a variety of web-based educational opportunities, such as webinars. These may be from national organizations such as those noted earlier, smaller regional or local organizations, or specialized groups such as the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC). Webinars are often more useful than conferences for professional development due to the limited availability of applicable sessions at conferences. Webinars are frequently available throughout the year, and they may even be pre-recorded and viewable when convenient. Webinars are also available from anywhere—without the travel costs associated with an in-person conference.

On the Job Learning

While formal education and professional development are excellent ways to prepare for and continue to learn about being special collections librarians and archivists, it is not unusual for one to simply fall into such a role without intention. For those who find themselves in such a position, learning on the job from the existing collections and policies, reading relevant journal articles, and networking with colleagues is the best way to build the knowledge and skills needed to succeed.

Often, newly appointed special collections librarians and archivists find themselves in charge of a particular collection with which they have limited exposure. To gain familiarity with the collection, special collections librarians and archivists can spend time learning about the collection by working on catalog or finding aid records, curating a project or exhibit, or fulfilling patron requests. If available, they may also receive training from their predecessor before assuming the new role. If the previous special collection librarian or archivist is unavailable, it is beneficial to review the collection’s policies and procedures, look through past exhibits, and examine any materials created by the predecessor.

Self-study is another effective way to learn on the job, and many positions will allow time for such development for a new special collection librarian or archivist. Reading journal articles from the professional associations listed above, or through access to databases provided by the institution, will provide additional guidance about the profession. Self-study reinforces the hands-on skills developed from working with the collection and offers opportunities to improve knowledge and skills.

Finally, new special collections librarians and archivists can improve their understanding by networking with the professional community. There are a variety of opportunities to build a professional network, including conference attendance, collaborating on projects, or even sending an email to another special collections librarian or archivist in the field. Most existing librarians in such roles are often willing to provide some level of mentorship to new librarians faced with the sometimes daunting role as a special collections librarian or archivist.


This chapter aimed to provide a brief introduction to the area of special collections and archives in academic law libraries. As discussed, working in special collections and archives offers the opportunity to further specialize within the law library field, and interact with the unique, delicate, and often hidden aspects of the library collection. Aspects of these collections require particular consideration, including collection development, preservation, and the special handling of materials. Special collection librarians and archivists have a distinct role in creating value for the library and the collection, through marketing and outreach to potential users. Despite these unique challenges, special collections librarians and archivists often take varied paths to the profession and there are opportunities to pursue this specialized work through alternative means.  This chapter scratched the surface of the complex and integral roles of special collections librarians and archivists within the law library and endeavored to provide the introductory tools necessary to pursue a path to special collections and archives.


To learn more about special collections and archives, we have selected the following resources for further reading:

  • Navigating Legal Issues in Archives by Menzi L. Behrnd-Klodt.
  • Developing and Maintaining Practical Archives: A How-To-Do-It Manual 3rd Edition by Gregory S. Hunter.
  • ABC for Book Collectors 8th Edition by J. Carter and N. Barker.
  • Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections: Reducing Processing Backlogs by Daniel A. Santamaria.
  • Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) website


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Introduction to Law Librarianship Copyright © 2021 by Erin E. Grimes; Jason LeMay; and Jaime Valenzuela is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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