Lessons From the Law Library

Attention: what follows is not me, my head shot to the left is not representative of the following paragraphs. Over the summer we have had a library school intern working in multiple capacities at the Sir James Dunn Law Library as our student reference assistant. During this time Amanda (Andie) Bulman has become a fan of Slaw and I thought that as the summer is drawing to a close I thought I would give her a chance to craft a post for Slaw on what her experience has been like over the past several months. I gave her a free rein to write what she desired, with a few editorial suggestions before I posted the text, and what follows are her thoughts on law, legal research and legal librarianship in an academic setting.

Lesson #1. Don’t screw up the job interview

I was not the first choice for the summer reference internship at the Sir James Dunn Law Library. I kept my beige trench coat on throughout the interview (a pen had exploded on my sweater minutes before the interview was scheduled to start) and nervously made some jokes about a province some of the interviewers were from. These were the first lessons. Wear a blazer. Keep the jokes to a minimum. Be professional in the job interview.

Lesson #2. Sometimes “The Answer” does not exist.

In June slews of undergraduates were taking a business law course and came to the library on a semi-regular basis. They frequently requested my help in searching for case law or legislation that had very specific criteria and I frequently went home feeling frustrated by my inability to find “the answer”. I eventually realized that it is unlikely that “the answer” would be found in a single document. Legal research is a time consuming process and well-crafted legal arguments are usually constructed from a variety of resources. The answer is a myth. Legal research rarely works that way.

Lesson #3. Reference librarians are trained in the art and science of answering questions. Reference librarians are not lawyers. Don’t play one on TV!

The questions that people ask in a law library differ significantly from the questions that get asked at other academic libraries. The questions can be complicated and weighty and often quite depressing. Your heartstrings will be tugged. Show restraint. Provide instruction and show patrons how to use the available resources. Do not get involved. Do not provide legal advice!

Lesson #4. Law libraries attract a weird and wide variety of patrons. Be prepared to help everyone.

I should qualify this by stating that I do receive the normal everyday questions about citations and databases. However, many questions seem to border on the absurd. Fridays are especially rough days at the reference desk. The research students have decided to take the day off, the faculty have made tracks for their summer homes, and the residents of Arkham have come to play.

I’ve met: a gentleman who does not “believe or trust computers”, several individuals who sue people for a living, and a host of conspiracy theorists attempting to prove that the Federal Income Tax Act is illegal. Law librarianship is a service profession. The law library is here to serve students and faculty, but we are also available to help anyone who wants to learn to navigate our resources. I’ve helped students with Quicklaw, assisted professors in their search for obscure newspaper articles, and have tracked down various amendments to the Income Tax Act for several very enthusiastic conspiracy theorists. The final and most important lesson has three parts: treat everyone with respect, teach everyone to use the library, and know when and how to exit a conversation that’s taken a turn for the weird.

Lesson #5. I want to be a legal librarian or an academic librarian. Please give me a job.

The most important thing that I have learned is that I want to work in this field. Before accepting this position, I only had a vague sense of what being a legal reference librarian entailed. I imagined that the reference librarians at the Sir James Dunn Law Library mainly created library guides and sat behind the information desk looking knowledgeable. The reality is very different. Besides working the reference desk the librarians create information guides for library users, they collaborate on policies and procedures, test drive new technology, committee work, present at conferences, collaborate with faculty on research, conduct their own research, catalog the collection, shelf read, work in acquisitions, and a host of other things. Their schedules are varied and interesting and their days rarely seem routine. Most importantly, the legal librarians here have an opportunity to teach research skills to students in a classroom setting . That’s the aspect of this career that seems most interesting. Having the ability, time, and opportunity to teach research skills would be amazing.


  1. Thank you both Mark and Andie for this post. I’ve worked a long time in academic law librarianship, some say too long, and I found your remarks and observations refreshing. It is nice to be reminded of the essentials of the job from somebody just new to it. I hope you continue in your desire to become a law librarian. You’re right, I’ve never been bored.

    Neil Campbell
    Law Librarian
    Diana M. Priestly Law Librarian
    University of Victoria