Rebuilding a Law Library, Part 4: Past as Prologue

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

A law library is different from other libraries not just in its collections, but in its function and especially in its role within its parent institution. In a law firm, the library and the librarians are an integral part of the firm’s practice. The librarians bill their time when working on client files. Increasingly, the library supports the lawyers not just in their research but also in their business development and knowledge management activities, responding not only to specific requests but proactively seeking and distributing information that promotes the lawyers’ work and advances the firm’s strategy.

Academic law libraries, too, are different from other libraries in the university. The library’s topical specialization allows a focus on collections and services not possible in the general humanities or science libraries. The law librarians’ responsibilities for teaching and providing research instruction to the law students is considerably more extensive and intensive than the general “information literacy” programs offered by non-law librarians. It helps, of course, that the law library is committed to serving the information needs of one of the smallest and most tightly-knit faculties in the university, permitting the librarians a level of familiarity with their clients that is one of the special attractions of law librarianship. This familiarity is further facilitated by the fact that almost all academic law libraries are physically situated within the law school. This proximity of content and context, especially when combined with an administrative structure in which the library reports to the Dean of Law rather than to the central university library, allows for a level of integration of professional service, research support and institutional strategy among the library, faculty and students that is the envy of other disciplines.

The greatest impediment to the Osgoode library’s goal of fully integrating itself into the academic and social fabric of the law school was physical: Though the library was large and spread over five floors in the law school building, the entrance to the library was poky and hidden in a remote corner of the basement level. There was only one dark, cinder-block stairwell to access the upper floors. The library was dingy and, after 40 years, the furniture and fittings were tired and inadequate. Despite the marvellous collection and a committed, service-oriented staff, students understandably avoided the library when they could. 

These physical shortcomings are addressed in the design of the new library. Though reduced in area by half and restricted to only two floors, the new library is front and centre in the new law school. The entrance, wide and welcoming, has been moved to the main floor of the law school and is the first thing you seen when entering the Gowlings Galleria. Student Services are located across the Galleria from the library, the IT Helpdesk is next door, and the cafeteria and Junior Common Room are just down the hall. The new reading rooms – the Harris-Taylor Reading Room on the upper floor and the McMillan LLP Reading Room on the lower floor – are large and bright, surrounded by windows and with new furniture. The library’s renowned special collections of early Anglo-American law and legal Canadiana will be showcased in the Canada Law Book Rare Book Room, a book-lined jewel case in the centre of the library. Enthusiasm for the new library is high, and both the students and the library staff are excited about its opening at the end of August.

While developing the conceptual and design features of the library, much thought has been given to translating the library’s new central position in the school into innovative services and programs that will better integrate it into the curriculum, life and spirit of the school. Because such effort has been made to showcase the library’s historical collections, we struggled with finding a way to highlight history without seeming fusty and traditional rather than innovative and forward-looking. We think we’ve found the appropriate balance in the Osgoode History & Archives Project.

Given the school’s current programs and reputation, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Osgoode Hall Law School is Canada’s oldest facility for training lawyers and the oldest law school in Ontario. After several false starts, the School was formally and finally (re)founded in 1889 as an institution of the Law Society of Upper Canada. The school gets its name from Osgoode Hall, the Law Society’s home on Queen St in downtown Toronto, where the law school lived until 1968, when it became affiliated with the recently founded York University as the faculty of law and moved to a new building on the University’s campus in suburban Downsview. This new affiliation and move to new premises provided the impulse that established Osgoode as a centre of scholarly excellence and as a leader in innovation in legal education; unfortunately, it also occasioned a break with the School’s early history and traditions.

As we worked on plans for the renovation of the law school, we became increasing sensitive to our history and all the changes that Osgoode has experienced in its 121 years. As faculty packed up their offices in preparation for construction and retired faculty came by to watch, we also realized that there was a real danger of losing much of our history. Boxes containing decades of papers and memorabilia began arriving in the library with the instructions, “If you don’t want this, throw it away.” We decided it was time to start preserving our history. We decided it was time to establish the Osgoode Archives.

Designing accommodation for the archives was easy: We have included archives shelving in the new Canada Law Book Rare Book Room. We then developed a collection policy that would not conflict with but complement the well-established archives of the Law Society of Upper Canada, the Archives of Ontario, the City of Toronto Archives and York University Archives. The policy we have adopted is to document the history and student experience of Osgoode Hall Law School, as well as the history of legal education and scholarship in Canada. But building an archive is a passive activity. The more difficult calculation was using this archive not only to preserve and document our past but as an instrument actively to advance research into Osgoode’s legacy of innovation and leadership and its impact on the legal profession. Thus was born the Osgoode History Project.

We have engaged the services of Lord Cultural Resources, a Canadian company that is the world’s largest professional practice dedicated to developing and displaying cultural resources. Other projects currently being worked on by Lord include the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg and the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Cairo. Working with Lord, we are developing a number of dynamic, interactive displays in the library and throughout the law school to showcase the School’s illustrious past. The displays will accommodate physical, audio-visual and digital presentations. The main feature will be a “history niche” in Gowlings Galleria directly beside the library entrance.

The Osgoode History & Archives Project will consist of more than revolving archival displays. The real thrust of the project is to act as a catalyst for integrating the School’s history, library collections and archival resources into the life and work of the Osgoode community by involving the students in developing and curating exhibitions, both physical and virtual, that illustrate the dramatic changes in legal education and the profession over the course of the past century and document Osgoode’s role in them. 

There is nothing new or novel in establishing an archive. The desire to establish an Osgoode Archives to capture the School’s unique history is obvious and even essential but hardly thrilling. But the Osgoode History & Archives Project is, we believe, a unique and exciting initiative, ensuring that Osgoode’s history is preserved and continues to animate its future.


  1. There is much to celebrate in this article but the saddest words are the statement that the library was reduced in area by half.

  2. Paul — Though the floorspace has indeed been significantly reduced, nothing has been lost. Some of my earlier columnns in this series explain why we consciously made this reduction and our priorities in doing so. Despite the reduction, we have been able significantly to increase study and “social” space for the students and still accommodate the collection. Nothing was lost and no sacrifices were made. While still accommodating “the largest law library in the Commonwealth”, we hope people also view our new space as “the best library in the Commonwealth”.

  3. When I looked at the floor plans I realized that the space saving comes from the elimination of open stacks and their replacement with sliding shelves. One of the things I enjoyed most about the library was browsing the floors of stacks and the endless ranges of law journals through which I could walk. In the new setup, books will be accessible but casual browsing will be more difficult, I believe.
    However, the new library does sound exciting and the preservation of archival matter is important and welcome.