Rebuilding an Academic Law Library, Part 2: Everything Old Is New Again

 [This is the second in a series of articles about the trends, theories, principles and realities that have influenced the redesign of the library of Osgoode Hall Law School — part of the renovation and rebuilding of the law school currently underway.]

The chief glory of the Osgoode Hall Law School Library is its world-class collection of early Anglo-American legal materials, including the largest collection of legal Canadiana anywhere. Despite pressures to recover space and plans to send some materials offsite (see my earlier column) when the Osgoode Library moves into its new facility in Summer 2011, we will not only be keeping our historical collections in-house, we will be showcasing them in a new, custom-built facility. Through the generosity of Mr Ian Cartwright, we are building the Canada Law Book Rare Book Room as the centrepiece of the new Osgoode Library and as a fitting home for the Balfour Halévy Special Collections. This state-of-the-art facility will not only be beautiful, it will feature full security and environmental controls for 150,000 volumes. The development and preservation of the library’s special collections will be a key feature of the library’s strategic plan going forward.

There are several reasons Osgoode is committed to its historical and special library collections. Most obviously, they are rare and valuable. Also, they are irreplaceable: It was difficult to build the collections in the 1960s and 1970s and it would be impossible to do so today. We view them not only as the library’s greatest material asset but as a national resource; having built the collections, we have a public duty to maintain them. These collections are unique in Canada; and, with time, they will become even more important, constituting perhaps the last extant copies of our essential, printed legal heritage. While the copies of early (pre-1930) law reports and statutes in both academic and private (law firm) libraries are disintegrating from age and overuse, mint-condition copies of them will be preserved in Osgoode’s special collections. But, with these nice clean copies locked away in an access- and environmentally-controlled rare book room, how will we balance their preservation with access to them by the communities we serve?

Much is written about “trends in libraries.” One of the more recommended contributions to the genre is “2010 Top Trends in Academic Law Libraries: A Review of the Current Literature” by the Research Planning and Review Committee of the Association of College and Research Libraries. One of the trends identified in the article is the “digitization of unique library collections.” Such digitization projects make a library’s otherwise hidden and underused special collections available to researchers everywhere, helping define the library as a nexus of content and technology to facilitate research, sometimes in extraordinary ways. There are many examples of such projects in Canada. York University Libraries is digitizing the Mariposa Archive, The University of Alberta and University of British Columbia Library also have digitization projects completed or underway. The Canadian leader, not surprisingly, is the University of Toronto Libraries, which has a considerable number of significant projects.

The identification of digitization of special collections as a trend will come as no surprise to law firm librarians, always in the forefront of developments in our profession. For years now, they have been digitizing their special collections of legal memos, closing books, facta, etc, and building them into databases that constitute the bedrock of legal research in their firms. In the public and academic spheres, however, not much has yet been done for the legal researcher, though the trend is developing. One of my favourites is the Old Bailey Online (Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913), which contains contributions from the Osgoode collection. Here in Canada, the Gerald V. La Forest Law Library at the University of New Brunswick has developed a number of digital collections, including the collection of 1st-reading bills from the NB Legislative Assembly. But these projects – in both the academic and private law libraries – are small-scale, serving small audiences with specific needs. Are there any large-scale projects to digitize special collections of historical (pre-1990) legal materials that address specifically the needs of Canadian law libraries and legal researchers?

The work of two organizations comes immediately to mind. The Law Library Microform Consortium (LLMC) is an American non-profit co-operative of libraries dedicated to (and passionate about) the twin goals of preserving the print legal heritage of the Anglo-American common law tradition and providing access to them. LLMC has been a publisher in microfiche format since 1976 and launched LLMC Digital in 2003. LLMC’s collections of historical Canadian materials, both legislative and judicial, for both federal and provincial jurisdictions, is phenomenal. Unfortunately, the cost of subscribing to LLMC Digital is beyond the means of Canadian law firms and access is available only at our law schools. HeinOnline, on the other hand, though a commercial subscription service, will be found not only at all Canadian law schools but also in many law firms, and has recently been made available to all lawyers in Ontario through the library services of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Though legal researchers regularly turn to HeinOnline for its collections of law journals, it is not yet widely known that Hein has recently digitized Canada’s federal statutes (English only) 1867-1990 in its “Session Laws” library.

Though both LLMC and HeinOnline are great products and commendable for their commitment to Canadian content, their one drawback is that they are subscription services and not “free”. What work has been or is being done within the “free access to law” movement? The most important law-related open-access digital collection in Canada is The Alberta Law Collection, which is comprehensive (1905-1990), well-organized and easy-to-use, offering both browse and search options. Its only drawback is that it’s located on the Alberta Heritage website – Our Future, Our Past – and not integrated into more likely, law-specific sites; it isn’t even linked from the QP Source site for post-1990 Alberta statutes, regulations and other legislative documents. Still, once you locate it, it’s a wonderful resource that accomplishes exactly what a digitization project should: both preservation of and enhanced access to a special collection of historical and increasingly rare materials. With the advent of this product, Alberta law firms can dispose of their deteriorating collections of statutes, confident that they will have easy and continuing access to the materials.

In view of Alberta’s example, it’s that much more disappointing that no other Canadian jurisdiction can offer anything similar. The Ontario Digitization Initiative (ODI), a project of the Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL), tries but doesn’t quite succeed. Though ODI has completed the digitization of the province’s legislative materials (statutes, regulations/gazettes, bills, debates, journals, 1867-2007), access to the materials remains rudimentary. The documents have been digitized by and reside on the Internet Archive, and can only be retrieved by keyword searching within “Texts – Canadian Libraries”. An additional impediment to legal research in the Internet Archive is that the materials have been digitized and can only be retrieved as “volumes” and not as discrete “documents”; i.e., you can find and retrieve v. 1 of the Revised Statutes of Ontario 1914, but it’s time-consuming getting to p. 317 of that volume if you’re looking specifically for the Succession Duty Act, RSO 1914, c 24 (though once there, you can easily bookmark the page).

(By the way: If you search the Internet Archive for historical Canadian texts, you’ll be surprised by how much of our print legal heritage has already been digitized, though almost none of it has been done by Canadians. Many of the great American research libraries, as well as Oxford’s Bodleian Library, have begun “mass digitization” projects to digitize their complete collections of out-of-copyright (pre-1923) texts, working with the Internet Archive, Google Books or the Hathi Trust. Because, before the 1960s, the largest Canadian law libraries were all in America (the largest being at Harvard), it is a happy consequence that a large portion of Canada’s printed legal heritage, both primary and secondary, is being digitized willy-nilly by Harvard, Cornell, Stanford and Michigan despite Canadians’ lack of initiative. The exception to this last indictment is the University of Toronto: of the more than 250,000 texts scanned to date by the Internet Archive Canada, the vast majority are from the University of Toronto.)

Which brings me back to the start of this article and its title: Everything Old is New Again. The Balfour Halévy Special Collections, Osgoode’s outstanding collection of historical legal materials, unmatched in Canada, will stand at the heart of our new library, both spiritually (as they always have) and physically in the new Canada Law Book Rare Book Room. But it will be a beating heart. Our rare book room will not be a mere repository for old books, preserving them by locking them away beyond the reach of unwashed hands. To be effective, preservation must proceed hand-in-hand with access. To achieve this dual goal and to ensure that our special collections contribute to the future of our profession as effectively as they did to our past, Osgoode is committing itself to a program of digitizing our historical Canadian legal collections, to building a “virtual Canadian law library” to mirror the physical collections we’re preserving for posterity. This digital library will be freely accessible by the public and offer enhanced levels of access and searchability. We anticipate the first stage of the project will be available to coincide with the opening of our new library in September 2011.


  1. Thank you for this incredible update, Louis. I look forward to seeing the progress on both the physical and the virtual library.

  2. Catching up on a most enlightening and wide-ranging article, I am prompted to direct a fitting glance toward the “unsung” yet heroic efforts that brought the Balfour Halevy Special Collections and elements of the Canada Law Book Rare Book Room to life. I have in mind the “binding authority” of one particularly talented craft bookbinder. There is a fascinating story therein and the importance of this aspect of law librarianship and the artefacts of law cannot be underestimated.

    To this point, consider exhibit “A” from Boston College:

  3. Sorry: the link intended in my earlier post is as follows:

  4. Louis:

    An excellent article and making the point very well about the importance of the still adding to and preserving the historical items.
    The digital library is an important tool for the 21st century and beyond audience. The original physical item is to be treasured and kept as their “opportunity” will be the fact they are physical and can be (carefully) handled. The institutions who own these will benefit by adding accredited classes about researching and the added joy of touching and handling a book versus digital page. This education opportunity will be available to only those who own the physical original item. Very good point you made here…
    “Most obviously, they are rare and valuable. Also, they are irreplaceable: It was difficult to build the collections in the 1960s and 1970s and it would be impossible to do so today. We view them not only as the library’s greatest material asset but as a national resource; having built the collections, we have a public duty to maintain them.”
    Thank you for caring and sharing. You will enjoy and have fun succeeding!
    Duncan McLaren