Whither the law library?

By Nick Holmes on March 12, 2008
Filed under Libraries

Law librarians were quick to comment when Carolyn Elefant on Legal Blog Watch posed the question Are Law Libraries Becoming Obsolete?

Steve Matthews was first up: “it does bug me that every other department in the law firm can evolve, but when Libraries do, they’re suddenly obsolete”; and the next: “this posting does take a very shallow view of what a ‘law library’ is”. Others in a similar vein made the case for librarianship in comments on the blog post and at law.librarians.

So I read the original source (always recommended!) which Carolyn referenced – Firms downsize their law libraries with proliferation of electronic research in the Birmingham [Alabama] Business Journal. Turns out it’s about the physical library space, not about the function libraries or librarians serve. Clearly if firms buy fewer and fewer print publications and jettison existing volumes in favour of digital equivalents, the need for shelf space will diminish, maybe in time to the point where they no longer need a physical library; the virtual library is not tied to bricks and mortar but exists in the clouds.

Michael Lines on Slaw, risks similar reactions when he asks What Happens When Your Library is Finally Empty?

… the internet’s reduction of publishing costs to effectively zero has critical implications for all the professions that are built upon the former reality of high publishing costs, librarianship and journalism among them. What will happen to libraries in the coming decades? Do libraries have staying power in the face of a total reversal of the economic reality they are predicated upon?

Again, the answer turns on what we mean by “library”. Many physical libraries may be emptying of print, but digital libraries abound and the virtual library that is the internet continues to grow exponentially.

The librarians commenting on the Legal Blog Watch post concur that librarianship is alive and well, but increasingly focused on supporting the use of online sources and tools. Connie Crosby:

Not all lawyers have time to keep up with the frequent changes to the online search tools, and many are relying increasingly on the library staff for their in-depth research. As well, library staff evaluate new online services, manage on-line licensing and subscriptions, provide search assistance, trouble-shooting problems with the online services. We provided classes on research skills development and support for new associates.


Nice summary of the conversation, Nick. I did realize the original article was about the physical space; however, I didn’t know that that would be clear to all readers. Moreover I thought the original article left the impression that the only thing making up the library is the physical space.

It is the cumulative effect of articles like that one that undermine our presence and leave law firms the impression they can do without a library department or librarians.

by Connie Crosby on 12 March 2008 at 5:54 pm. #

I agree, articles and commentators should be take more care to give a balanced picture.

by Nick Holmes on 12 March 2008 at 6:51 pm. #

I’ve got to confess, I’m exploring digitising key documents in my collection, and would be happy to give up shelving space to create an information commons, training room or some kind of gathering place to lure people into my library. While our usage is increasing, foot traffic is down. I don’t think that’s a bad think but I do think it means that I have to think about what the library’s role is. I’m in an interesting position, because our library is open to the public, so some “bookage” will be required for those users, but if the information is going to be used by the adjudicators, it had better not be stuck on a shelf in a building down the street from the decision-maker. Even having to go to another floor can be a barrier for users who need information quickly.
Of course, the challenge of meeting increasing user needs while negotiating with vendors continues to become increasingly complex….

Wendy Reynolds
Ontario Workplace Tribunals Library

by Wendy Reynolds on 12 March 2008 at 10:31 pm. #

I must say I only used the law library a few times while in law school.

That is no completely true, I only used the books a few times. I talked with the staff and learned from them a great deal about how information is orgnized. They were a big resource for me.

by YourSleuth on 15 February 2009 at 2:58 am. #