We’re closed. As has been frequently noted on social media, libraries are essential but not in the same way as healthcare is essential. I have always wondered what law practice would look like without law libraries. Now we’ll find out.
I’ve said many times that I don’t believe law libraries are essential to law practice. Legal information is, but not law libraries. Like many professions, a legal professional has been trained to use the information required in that knowledge domain. The law library profession is aware that the vast bulk of lawyers do not maintain their own law libraries (a staffed, legal information access service) although most have a legal information collection.
What about people who aren’t part of the profession? Access to professional information – whether it’s financial, medical, or legal – is vital. Probably unlike other knowledge domains, public access to law libraries is more vital than practitioner access.
My focus is on law practice rather than public access because, in our jurisdiction, the nearly 50 private law libraries are not public-facing. When our library closes, it impacts practitioners and the public. But most of the public do not access legal information through law libraries in Ontario.
Legal Information Cost is Overhead
A legal professional needs legal information to practice competently. A legal professional is generally trained to use that information prior to graduation and being able to practice law. That training may or may not be updated over the career.
If legal information was free, we would have a very different discussion about the place of law libraries in the legal world. It isn’t, though. The cost of legal information is overhead to a law practice. Law libraries enable the transference of that overhead.
Law firm libraries are an economy of scale. At some point, the number of legal professionals in a firm creates a pool of money large enough to support staffing a law library. It’s not a switch. It’s a gradual build up, where firms get staff to handle law library duties in addition to whatever the firm initially hired them to do. At some point, there’s enough work to make it a dedicated role.
Membership, subscription, and government law libraries are also enabled by transferring overhead. In some libraries, the cost is underwritten by court fees, municipal income, or direct-from-lawyer dues. But the aggregate sum creates the same economy of scale. Most membership law libraries would close if they relied solely on membership dollars.
When law libraries close, we return to the model where each lawyer is responsible for her own legal information and research staff, like law librarians.
Everything is Internet-Accessible?
Let’s look at the information first and, specifically, books.
Our law library is closed, for now, until April 30. We serve as a hub for 60,000 legal professionals who underwrite our print and electronic collections. As soon as our organization mandated work-from-home, we lost print access.
This creates a lot of tension. Our professional staff want to keep delivering information and they could do a portion of their work remotely. Like any law library, we have electronic access to the major databases. But how do those print titles figure into our work?
It is surprising to many lawyers but the overlap of print publications to electronic publications is huge and varies by jurisdiction and practic area. We may make research seem easy but law librarians are not just sitting at a desk with information at the fingertips.
One reason that law librarians exist is that we reduce the lawyer’s information access gap. It’s not that it’s not there. You still can only have what is paid for by overhead, whether you license information or hire staff.
Here’s a Canadian example. Let’s say I’m a lawyer who now can’t access a law library. I go to Thomson Reuters Carswell and see what I can buy. I can buy either print books or Proview e-texts. First, I look at the books and find that Carswell reports that it has only 8 Proview titles.
Faceted search options on Thomson Reuters Carswell book search. This is bad faceting and does not reflect the actual Proview text count.
Now, I’ll meta game and think like a librarian. There’s no way a modern legal publisher has that big a disparity between print and e-texts. So I go through the practice areas and count the “PRINT” facet. Then I access the Proview books catalog in a separate search and tally up the practice areas (which facets are ALSO a mess).
Here’s the result (and the data). It’s clear that there is a gap between what’s available in print and what is available in e-text.
This is a comparison of counting, by practice area, the books in the Carswell book catalog under the facet “print”. Those numbers are then compared in the Proview catalog, counting by occurrence of practice area in the facets (so Civil Procedure and Civil Procedure, Evidence = 1 category for Civil Procedure).
That’s a law library perspective. Here is a practitioner perspective. This is the percentage of print books to ebooks (by count) by practice area.
A chart showing that the count for print titles and e-books in some practice areas is closer to 100% than in others.
It’s pretty clear that everything is not internet-based and accessible. This is without touching on issues like the lack of electronic historical material. A lawyer who has lost access to a law library will need to consider buying print if they find they have an information gap.
A law library often serves the role of finding things that are not easily accessible and easy to find. That’s the whole point.
A Change in Expectations
I am interested to see what the change in expectations will be after the closure. I am not trying to position as they’ll see what they’re missing without us. It’s not that. But it may create some additional awareness around why we make the choices we do in law library operations.
We don’t cancel the print entirely because it doesn’t exist digitally entirely yet. Even if it did, a fully digital collection only answers part of the information access component of legal research. You will still have gaps.
Law librarians are not essential. But we can knit some information access gaps closed in a way that legal professionals can’t. We do it:
- by being better researchers because we do it more often
- by relying on colleagues to help us when we don’t know something or can’t access something
In other words, we do it the same way legal professionals do their work, but within our own knowledge domain. Reduced access to law librarians means legal professionals need to find ways to knit those gaps closed on their own.
This period may have long term consequences for law libraries. We may find good ways to replace some of what law libraries and law librarians do for researchers and some lawyers may find they don’t need us as much as they thought. Others may find that they didn’t even realize how much they needed our operations: service, space, people, whatever.