The Unrealized Potential of Courthouse Libraries

I’ve never had anything but the highest respect, admiration and regard for my colleagues in courthouse libraries; and, if I have any regrets about my career, one of them is that I never had the opportunity to work in a courthouse or law society library. Of all librarians, it is they who, through a network of almost 200 county courthouse libraries in Canada, remain closest to the practising legal profession. Private law librarians (ie, law firm librarians) are closely attuned to the practice in their firms, often specialized in one area of law (eg, labour or criminal or business law) and removed from the hurly-burly of court. Academic law librarians have to be grounded in legal theory and have a grasp of international issues, but they are far removed from practice; and if they misdirect, nobody is going to jail. But courthouse librarians are always on the front line of practice, and they never know who is going to come to them for help or with what question they will be presented.

What has always impressed me most about courthouse librarians is their in-depth bibliographical knowledge and familiarity with the whole of our legal literature, especially our legal heritage in print, and their sensitivity to an appreciation of its continuing value in contemporary legal research. This only stands to reason: our courthouse libraries are the oldest law libraries in the country; they were developing extensive collections of Canadian and English law long before any of today’s law firms and law schools had been founded. In fact, the founding a provincial law society or county law association was usually synonymous with the founding of a law library. Though the Barristers’ Society of Nova Scotia was officially founded in 1858, its library dates from 1797, when Chief Justice Thomas Strange donated his personal library to the common use of the Halifax bar. The Law Society of Ontario was founded in 1797 and its library officially established in 1827. The first county law library in Ontario dates to 1854 with the founding of the Brant County Law Association. The fist courthouse library in what is now British Columbia was founded in Victoria in 1869, the same year as the Law Society of British Columbia, 11 years after the founding of the colony and two years before British Columbia became a province within the Canadian confederation.

Sadly, with growing demands on the limited space in courthouses and facilitated by the advent of digital legal information, most of these county law library print collections have been dispersed. When I was Chief Law Librarian at Osgoode Hall Law School, I was happy to take the historical collections of several Ontario courthouse libraries for our rare book room, significantly enriching the school’s historical collections with volumes of documented Canadian provenance. But too many of these collections have simply gone to the shredder, and a large part of our shared print legal heritage has been lost in the process. As an indication of their awareness of this loss, Canada’s courthouse librarians are the profession’s most avid supporters of digitization projects for early Canadian law, though their libraries are regrettably the least able to undertake such projects themselves.

The loss of their collections isn’t the only sacrifice our courthouse libraries have had to make. As in libraries everywhere, their budgets have been slashed, and services and collections have been centralized. Considerable and sophisticated library and research services continue to be provided to the lawyers in every province, primarily by email and phone from a central “resource” library (usually the provincial law association’s own library), with a network of better-resourced regional law libraries and then the local county libraries. But many of these local county courthouse libraries are mere shadows of their former selves, with only a minimal print collection, not always access to centrally-subscribed digital resources such as Lexis/Quicklaw, Westlaw or Hein, and staffed by a librarian only part-time if at all.

The Changing Library and Legal Information Environment

This diminishment of our courthouse libraries is a great pity, especially since (as I have said above) these libraries are in the forefront of providing library services and research assistance at the local level. Admittedly, in the digital age, the demand for traditional library services is changing, so one would expect to see equal change in the services offered by county law librarians. Law firm librarians may no longer maintain print collections, but they have compensated by expanding their roles into new areas of information management such as knowledge management, business information, competitive analysis and marketing support. Academic law librarians are increasingly involved with the development and management of institutional repositories, with research intensification and scholarly communications. However, many formerly robust county courthouse libraries and their trained, dedicated and talented librarians have been left to languish. This is a great waste of significant local talent and expertise. Just as other law libraries are changing and adapting to meet the challenges of providing services to their clients in a changing information environment, it seems to me there are a number of new and even necessary services that could help courthouse librarians better help their clients access the law and succeed in their practice.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

All lawyers are required regularly to acquire credits in continuing professional development (CPD) and all Canadian law societies and bar associations have substantial and active CPD programs to help them do this. In almost all provinces, the courthouse libraries are already engaged in hosting and delivering these programs at the local level. They are also involved in supporting and providing online access to digital collections of CPD articles and programs. While all courthouse libraries (if and when staffed) offer reference and research assistance to local lawyers, including assistance in accessing and using free web and subscribed digital legal research resources, not all are engaged in formal teaching efforts for their local bar. Ontario used to have a “roving law librarian”, whose job it was to visit each of the province’s 48 county courthouse libraries, ensuring the local librarian was up-to-date in her online research skills and offering research seminars to local lawyers. But as more and more online services are available to lawyers, especially individually-subscribed and practice-focussed services such as Lexis’s Practice Advisor and Westlaw’s “Source” products, courthouse libraries could provide a local venue for research-oriented seminars provided by either or both the librarian and the law publishers themselves. As online legal research resources become more personalized and sophisticated, it is increasingly important that lawyers outside of major urban centres be offered such training and have access to the reference services of a trained law librarian at the local level, especially if they are to be expected to offer competent and competitive legal services to their clients.

Additionally, while all Canadian law society libraries provide a portal or at least a webpage listing both free and subscribed online resources available to members, almost none (British Columbia is one prominent exception) provide online guides and videos on finding, accessing, using and researching legal information. Nobody understands better than courthouse librarians what information is needed and how it is used at the local practice level, and their skills could readily be directed to developing such self-help online guides for their clients.

Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI)

Though it used to be a big topic in legal circles (especially back in the days of CLIC, the Canadian Law Information Council, if your memory extends that far back), there’s not much talk these days about PLEI (Public Legal Education and Information). That’s a shame. I’ve written in the past that access to justice must include access to legal information and that legal information must be freely available to and easily accessible by all. These goals must include improved knowledge and understanding of the law and the justice system (“legal literacy”) among the public.

Fair and equal access to legal services is a large part of access to justice; but at the same time, we must make it easier for self-represented litigants – those who, for whatever reason, elect to forgo the services of a lawyer – to represent themselves competently. Yet – and again, with the exception of British Columbia – the public is not welcome in any of our local courthouse libraries. In some provinces, the public is offered a minimum of service (basic directional services from a librarian, access to print resources only) only at the central law society library, clearly out of reach of the vast majority of the population. If we are serious about access to justice, then we must do a better job of providing public access to legal information and legal information services. No one is better positioned – neither physically nor professionally – to provide such information and service at the local level than our local courthouse libraries and librarians.

Our justice departments, attorneys general, law societies and bar associations must not overlook the potential of courthouse libraries as the space where their access to justice initiatives connect with the public, with the courthouse librarians acting as the trained ambassadors. They could provide not only traditional reference services and access to both print and digital resources, but also seminars and lectures on the law and the justice system. Such outreach initiatives from within the courthouse, offered by librarians or lawyers from the local community, would help demystify the justice system and contribute not only to heightened legal literacy among the public, but also promote awareness of the expertise and services available to them from the legal professionals in their communities.

As a supplement to such in-person services, greater attention must be given to the development of online and print self-help guides and videos (as in British Columbia). What a difference it would make if even only a small part of the efforts of the law societies’ CPD program lawyers directed just a small part of their attention to the development of such resources for the public. Law schools could also make a significant contribution here, if they redirected just a small portion of their legal aid and clinical efforts to the development of educational and self-help resources for the public. The faculty and students at Thomson Rivers university are showing leadership in such efforts through their Public Legal Information Project, and funds and resources should be directed towards similar projects at other law schools.

Practice Support

I once paid an extended visit to the courthouse library in a town hundreds of miles from the law society library in the provincial capital. In my discussions with the librarian, I was impressed by her resourcefulness and dedication to assisting the legal professionals in her area, but distressed by her stories of dedicated lawyers, often recent graduates, working from their cars or from their mothers’ basements, with no other place to work meet with clients. Her instructions were, if they tried to meet with clients in the library, she should throw them out. How easy would it be to offer these lawyers small, private conference rooms in which they could meet with clients. Bookings could be easily managed by the library, using a simple self-serve online app like the one we used at my former law school for student study room bookings. Of course, the library would always be available to them as a workspace when they’re not with clients.

Every law firm of any size has an in-house information technology expert or even an entire department, dedicated to maintaining and training for the many online services, from email to document management to online billing and accounting, so essential to a successful modern legal practice. Small town and rural lawyers don’t have access to such services, and especially not sole practitioners. In my old law firm, the library took on increasing responsibilities for helping lawyers in managing their digital information, from document naming conventions to the effective organization of digital files. Given the opportunity, courthouse librarians could play in significant role in assisting local practitioners in using such resources to manage their practices more efficiently.


Of course, all of this would have to be paid for. Courthouse libraries are funded in a variety of ways depending on the province; but as a general rule, funds are provided by the provincial law society and law foundation. The libraries themselves, as part of courthouse infrastructure, are provided by the provincial attorney general. The funding model in Ontario is perhaps unique. The central law society library (the Great Library of the Law Society of Ontario) is funded exclusively by the Law Society. The Ontario Courthouse Library System (LibraryCo) is funded from two sources: their print collections and online subscriptions are paid for and managed by the Law Society, while the law librarian’s salary is paid by the local county law association. Regardless of the funding model, funding for smaller libraries serving a local bar of fewer than 100 lawyers is challenging.

One could argue that funding public access to courthouse libraries presents law societies, whose first responsibility is to the regulation and promotion of the practice of law, with a conflict of interest. Why would they, whose finances come completely from the fees paid by their members, want to finance programs and services intended to help the public access justice without the assistance of a lawyer? I would argue that a happy legal services consumer is an educated legal services consumer and that, in the end, such outreach efforts in the spirit of access to justice can only be of mutual benefit to both the public and the profession. And I am convinced that courthouse libraries and their librarians, already tried and proven in the service of the legal professionals in their communities, can and should have a major role in the provision of such services.

The following are links to the library services pages for each provincial law society:

NL: Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, Library
PE: Law Society of Prince Edward Island, Law Library
NS: Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, Library Services
NB: Law Society of New Brunswick, Law Libraries
QC: Centre d’accès à l’information juridique, Bibliothèque (English) ; Bibliothèques et points de service (English)
ON: Law Society of Ontario, Great Library ; LibraryCo
MB: Law Society of Manitoba, Great Library ; Manitoba Law Libraries
SK: Law Society of Saskatchewan, Library
AB: Alberta Law Libraries
BC: Courthouse Libraries BC


  1. Great article Louis. I would like to correct the url for the Manitoba Law Library – it is I totally agree with all your suggestions, and am already working on implementing some of them.

  2. Thomas Harrison

    Great article!.

  3. I just have one problem with this article – saying that at law society law libraries the public are not welcome – that is not true – law society libraries have embraced access to justice initiatives that allow for members of the public to come and use the resources on site. The challenge for law society Librarians is budgetary – we do have our budgets from the Members’ fees and as such our collections must support their work, there isn’t the money to have a general public collection of materials that those not trained in the law can use and databases comes with licenses that prevent us from allowing the public to use them. CanLII is freely accessible and understandable at the level of the regular person and this is available to anyone, at any time – why should pay extra when this more than covers their needs and we can and will walk anyone through the resources. As to individual law societies creating public guides – there are lots more of these than this article suggests and don’t we have a spirit of collegiality in the field that encourages us to share resources such as this. Why not share a central pool of resources for these or support libraries who have already created them by sending the public in our provinces to those already created resources?

  4. Thanks for shining a light on courthouse libraries with this piece Louis. I hope that you will permit me to shift this spotlight to Alberta specifically with a couple of my comments here:

    You state that “Yet – and again, with the exception of British Columbia – the public is not welcome in any of our local courthouse libraries.” In Alberta, members of the public have been welcome to visit and use courthouse library resources and services on-site since 1973. This includes 11 different locations today; see: I know this free access to be the case in other jurisdictions too.

    Alberta Law Libraries (ALL) also offers research support and instruction, such as through our aptly named “Book a Librarian” service. For lawyers, these customized sessions can be included for CPD credit, though these sessions are also available to members of the public; see:

    Re/unique funding models: I would argue that Alberta takes this one. ALL was created in 2009 by consolidating management of the Alberta Law Society Libraries and the Alberta Court Libraries. A unique system of 18 libraries (11 open to the public) was the result, providing access to reliable legal resources, information and research services to all participants in the justice system, including the judiciary, lawyers, self-represented litigants, other libraries and all Albertans. Funding for ALL is provided by three parties: the Government of Alberta, the Law Society of Alberta and the Alberta Law Foundation. Three funders, one library system, and governed by a 9 member Board.

    As noted by Karen above, we are also committed to much of what you have raised here, are excited by discussion around the work and potential of courthouse libraries, and in knowing that others in our field share these sentiments! A commitment to increasing advocacy and awareness of such potential must be our focus, moving the conversation beyond our own “library land” echo chamber, and into the meetings and mind of funders, users and future-users. Thank you again for this thoughtful post Louis.

  5. Writing on behalf of Courthouse Libraries BC, thank you for this focused piece. I also appreciate (and have learned some new things from) the comments by colleagues at other courthouse libraries across the provinces.

    It rings true that despite a long and integral legal legacy law libraries are rarely top of mind outside the echo chamber (if we can even call it that).

    In BC, the key to our dual mandate rests in the shared load between our key funders, the Law Society of BC and the BC Law Foundation. That we operate in the public space of the courts, and at the pleasure of the Ministry of Justice, must also bring us a referent aura of openness.

    In any event, working with both the professional legal community and the legal-information-seeking public alloys us and makes us stronger in our work. It makes us better at serving both groups.

    In some cases, there is clearly symbiosis… for example in our publishing efforts. We coordinate the production and act as the trusted conduit for some PLEI texts. We produce some Clicklaw Wikibooks with lawyers who donate time as authors and editors. The lawyers do this through us because they appreciate our close relationship with the public. The public use these titles because they are free, but also because they bear the marks of authority. A thing that is not a marketing initiative, not a politically coercive text, that is written by lawyers, for anonymous readers, is a thing that a library is apt to make.

    In ways like this, libraries can act as the non-profit settlement layer between those who need legal information but can’t afford its capitalist forms, and the knowledge capitalists who crave an outlet for their equitable and principled natures.
    Thanks again, Louis.