Public Libraries and Legal Research

No matter how good a library is, space and economic constraints mean that it simply cannot carry everything a researcher might need. As a result, libraries rely on other libraries to help fill in the gaps in their collection. (This practice has its flaws, most notably being what happens when the other libraries stop carrying the materials you need, but that’s another column.) I run the library of a Vancouver law firm so my “go to” libraries (as you might expect) are the B.C. Courthouse Libraries and the University of British Columbia’s Law Library. However, I also use the Vancouver Public Library extensively as it has resources that the other two do not.

Public libraries do not tend to have the extensive legal collections found in a courthouse or university library; their strengths lie elsewhere. The diversity of their collection means that they can provide resources that one might not necessarily be able to find a library with a focus purely on law.

Here are some suggestions as to how legal professionals can use their public library for both legal research and business development:

Government documents
A number of public libraries function as depositories for Canadian government information, meaning that they receive copies of all Government of Canada publications distributed via the Weekly Checklist. This comes in handy when trying to find older federal government materials where a significant amount of content is not available electronically. Examples of such material include Senate and House of Commons committee reports, Statistics Canada publications, and historical reports.

Technical standards can be very expensive so a purchase may not be economically feasible when only a single use is going to be made. It is therefore worthwhile checking with one’s public library to see if they already own the standard needed.

Business directories
Public libraries tend to have collections of business directories. These can be useful for finding contact information (despite the prevalence of business websites, it can be extraordinary what information doesn’t make it on to the site) or for gleaning business intelligence.

Newspaper databases/microfiche
Although most newspapers freely publish most of their recent news stories online, sometimes one may need to find an older news article. Most public libraries provide access to newspaper databases to assist with this. Alternatively, one may need a copy of how a particular page of the paper as it was originally published (for example a copy of an advertisement may be needed and most newspaper databases don’t include this type of ephemera). Public libraries usually have microfilm or electronic databases of copies of old papers which retain the full layout.

Some public libraries offer paid research services whereby librarians will carry out more extensive research than can be offered for free; an example is the Vancouver Public Library’s InfoAction. Examples of the kinds of research InfoAction carries out include business or market research, and obtaining copies of documents. One particularly useful thing is that these services can request information from a government or organization while acting as an anonymous proxy; the library service functions as an intermediary so that there is no disclosure that a law firm is interested in the information.

Specialized collections
A public library is likely to have a specialised collection of books about the area it is located in, including those that have been published by small presses or vanity publishers. These can be extremely useful when trying to find out the specific history of an area or a local business.

Obviously the size of the public library is going to be a factor; the resources available through the public library system has will vary tremendously by individual library. Nonetheless, the public library is an excellent resource and one that should not be overlooked.


  1. Thanks for mentioning Courthouse Libraries BC! While our Vancouver branch is the largest, we have locations thoughout BC — and we ship books and other materials directly to lawyers. Even our smallest branches still provide access to legal databases like Hein Online and Lawsource.

  2. Great column, Susannah. I coordinate a program called LawMatters at your local public library at the Vancouver Courthouse Library.

    We provide grants to BC public libraries to enhance their legal information collections, as well as training sessions on how to do legal reference.

    I agree that public libraries are a great resource for lawyers and their clients!