Innovation and Small Law Libraries

County law libraries are an endangered species, with many of the strongest libraries facing funding shortfalls or outright closure. Those that are not funded by government are supported by membership dues and other creative financing schemes. A constant is that they are all facing financial challenges as print and electronic legal research materials get more expensive, the scope of library services broadens, and they try to adapt to modern law practice and research attitudes. I took a look at 5 law association libraries in Ontario in an article published in the November 2009 AALL Spectrum.

The article is called Doing More with Less:  Innovation in Small Law Libraries.  Since leaving my own county law library and moving to Canada, I have had the good fortune to work with some interesting and creative library staff across the province of Ontario.  Even more unusual than most funding arrangements, they have a membership fee stream as well as a central funding mechanism, where every lawyer in Ontario pays dues and some of that money is then distributed to the local law libraries.

I like working with my colleagues at the county and district law association libraries and this was an opportunity to write – something else I enjoy doing – about the interesting things they were trying.  For anyone unfamiliar with a typical, small county law library, there is often only one person to handle every aspect of library operations.  In addition, that person is often expected to manage association matters, collect membership dues, and keep the association alive.  It is a challenging position.

At the same time, it is the sort of position where a librarian can develop skills that are usually not possible to learn from within a larger library.  Marketing and diversification of services aren’t things to which you can just pay lip service.  Subscription or membership libraries face the dual problem that low participation or use of the library’s services can spell disaster both for the association and for the library itself.  As lawyers have more access in their offices, or choose to live and work further away from the law library, these challenges become more significant.

The 5 libraries I discuss in the article are being creative.  In some cases they are using technology to make more time for themselves, to do more.  In other cases, they are creating new services or stretching the traditional notion of what their law library is supposed to offer.

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