In March 2020, lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic forced libraries all over the world to suspend physical public services. KU Leuven Libraries was no exception. As in other institutions, the suspension of in-person services was tied with a massive increase in demand for digital services, like the delivery of scans of articles and chapters in printed journals or books. Of course, we were conscious of the fact that manually scanning individual pieces and subsequently delivering these scans to one single user is not very efficient. So why not scan entire books and journals and make them digitally available to all? 

This challenge was picked up by the Law Library. As in most other European countries, most legal journals in Belgium are online since the turn of the century. But older issues typically are not, first and foremost because the publishers concerned do not see commercial value in digitizing the archival collection, not in the least because the bulk of their customer base are not academics but legal practitioners who, generally speaking, are not interested in access to “outdated” information. As a result, the Law Library had already taken the initiative in previous years to digitize older issues of four of the most important Belgian legal journals to make them available online. This was – after some negotiation with, but also with full cooperation of the publishers – done in Open Access (OA), either on the website of the journal or on webpages designed by the Law Library itself.

It was therefore an obvious step, when confronted with the lockdown, to try to achieve the same for an additional 70 or so legal journals. Separately negotiating 70 times with editorial boards and publishers about how this would be done and where it would be hosted seemed complicated and contradictory to the speed with which the Law Library wanted to progress in the face of COVID-19. As a result, it was decided to treat every journal in the same way with a new interface operated by the Law Library itself, with a short and recognizable URL and a standardized workflow for scanning. This way, discussions with copyright holders were simplified, since intentions could be presented clearly and illustrated with an ever-growing number of examples of journals and books which had already been made available. 

In the first months of scanning, we learned two things. First, the mass digitization of this material is, to a large extent, a piece of cake (securing sustainable availability and long-term preservation are another matter of course). In the short run, all we needed was a good paper cutting machine, a fast scanner, cheap OCR-software and some server space. All of these were already present in the Law Faculty. Second, legal publishers are actually surprisingly cooperative to make issues of “their” journals older than 20 years available in OA (other publishers might be another matter).

A year in, the Law Library at KU Leuven operates a mostly OA archive of pre-2000 issues of about 75 Belgian legal journals, offering about 22 000 pdfs (of which about 15 000 were produced during 2020), organised by year and issue, with a simple search interface, as well a growing number of legal books (available in OA where possible). The response is unequivocally positive, full of admiration for what is perceived to be the result of a gigantic effort. However, we have to admit that this was easier than assumed, by cutting and scanning surplus volumes (since most of these “classics” were available in multiple copies anyway) by a number of library staff who were available due to the suspension of physical public services, working in rotation to achieve the application of about 1 FTE. Again, we do realise that growth, sustainability and long-term preservation will need to be addressed (but in the face of COVID-19, we made the conscious decision to get as much material out there as fast as possible and address these issues at a later stage), just as not all publishers will be as cooperative as publishers of Belgian legal journals and books proved to be. And we obviously also realize that this is not unique in any way, as is proven by the online availability of hundreds of older university law reviews realised by HeinOnline, not to mention other comparable (for- or non-profit) initiatives like DigiZeitschriften, JSTOR, Periodicals Archive Online or HathiTrust Digital Library. However, we believe that the most important realization is that university libraries can be successful in rapidly creating OA digital archives which they fully control themselves, when they decide to be proactive. Sometimes life is easier than it seems.


Christoph Malliet, Head Librarian, Law Library, KU Leuven Libraries
Demmy Verbeke, Head of KU Leuven Libraries Artes, KU Leuven Libraries

Reference: Malliet, C., & Verbeke, D., (March 2021), Case study: KU Leuven Libraries – Law Library, Research Libraries UK