Over the last few years the physical footprint of law firm libraries has been decreasing. Reasons for this include the ever-increasing price of real estate and the availability (both real and perceived) of legal materials online. Some library users rarely or never set foot in the library; this may be because they work in a different office, they work from home, or simply that they prefer to be able to access library services electronically.
In some cases, the decrease in square footage has been library-driven; if the library manager sees that the library does not need all the space it is currently occupying, it can be politic to voluntarily give it up. Even if the reduction in library space has not been the choice of the library, there can be unexpected side-benefits of downsizing. Reducing the footprint of the library forces the library staff to critically reassess the collection and collection development policies, and provides library staff with a good reason to justify cancellations.
One casualty of the smaller library has been law reporters. CanLII has made it very easy to retrieve case law online, negating the need to keep these reporters, and cancelling them means money in the library budget that can be spent on other things. Over the last five years my library has discarded about half of its law reports, freeing up shelf space for items that were being used. I suspect that over the next five years a good percentage of the remaining law reports will be gone. We still keep those reporters that contain harder-to-get case law, as well as older reporters that do not have paragraph numbers.
Despite the trend towards smaller libraries, completely getting rid of the physical law library is impossible in all but a few very specialized cases, as a significant number of legal research tools are still not available online.
Having a physical library can have other benefits. In a recent Knowledge Management seminar, a number of the law librarians attending emphasized how valuable it was having a large work area for lawyers to use. Not only was it important for these lawyers to have somewhere to spread out their research materials, but it also provided an informal meeting area where they could exchange ideas. In her article on “The Twenty-First Century Law Library” Heidi Heller notes that
lawyers often need a quiet place to think and to write important documents … and libraries in firms continue to be a place for uninterrupted work.
Louis Mirando has some very interesting things to say about the library as social space in Rebuilding a Law Library, Part 5: Library as Place. In my experience I have found articling students will quite often meet in the library to discuss what they are working on and make suggestions to each other about different tacks they could be taking on the research. There is also the element of serendipity; more than once I have been discussing a research issue with an articling student or a junior associate in the library, only to have a partner wander by and suggest that the student/associate might want to consider case X or textbook Y.
While the typical physical law library is indeed becoming smaller, it brings to the law firm value beyond simply being a repository of tangible research material; as the librarian, that’s reward enough for me.