The Smaller Law Library

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.


  1. It seems to me that, therefore, how the space is laid out becomes increasingly important: space for quiet work, mixed with space for group work as well as space for informal (unplanned) meeting. There is less a need for workstations (a.k.a. desktop computers) and more need for seating flexibility.

    Is this a new skill librarians need: space design?

  2. Very true, Connie – we need to make smart use of the space that’s there. We bought some new furniture over the past couple of years (book shelves and client carrels). All of it is on wheels so that we can reconfigure the space as needed. More than once, we’ve removed the furniture entirely to host workshops or discussion groups.

  3. Connie, I don’t think it’s a *new* skill but, rather, one we’ve overlooked. I incorporated space planning and space design into a Reference Services Management and Administration course we offered a couple of years ago and came to the conclusion that space planning deserves a course of its own.

  4. Kristin Hodgins

    UBC’s MLIS program offers a course titled Library Planning and Design. I took it several ago, and when library students ask me which course I found to be the most useful or which course I recommend taking, it’s always at the top of my list for those interested in working in libraries. It was incredibly useful to learn how to properly estimate shelf space, think about things like structural support and earthquakes (perhaps more of an issue on this side of the country), accessibility, flow, ambience, target users, future use, and most importantly, doing it all within budget. Of course, it can’t simulate some real-world hiccups like working through bureaucracy, construction surprises or delays, a few unhappy but vocal users, etc., but it was a valuable course nonetheless.

    For most of us working in government or other publicly funded libraries, our reality is generally not one of being able to plan and design an ideal (or even functional) space for our users given a reduced footprint, but rather by making due with what we have by rearranging pre-existing fixtures in the least-awkward configuration possible. It’s a difficult choice between having the right materials for our users versus having a space they actually want to visit and use in the first place. They didn’t cover that part in library school, either.

    Budgets notwithstanding, I think the visual shift from a book warehouse to a gathering place where ideas are developed and exchanged is an important one, as is creating a space where users feel some degree of ownership over it. If we want libraries to be thought of and recognized as something beyond the place where books live, our physical space had better reflect that and be used in that manner, and quickly. If that shift doesn’t happen before our materials are almost entirely available online, we will have forever lost an opportunity to engage face-to-face with users, and organizations will have lost a place where a serendipitous discovery or exchange of ideas can occur. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to quantify the failure to discover and you can’t really point to that and say “look, providing a space for ideas will actually save money in the long run.”

    Changing peoples’ perceptions of librarians is probably the easier task, especially in a law environment; it’s changing the perception of libraries that is the more pressing and challenging issue.