Tech Opportunities in Small Law Libraries

Ontario has 48 county law libraries and the Law Society’s Great Library.  All 49 are membership libraries primarily focused on providing legal research support to lawyers.  Most of these libraries are 1 or 2 person operations, mixing a local bar association with a law library.  They are funded largely by grants and cannot operate solely on the dues and other revenue they can raise.  When I was asked to speak to the Conference of Law Association Libraries on future technology, it was important to keep these limitations in mind.

In other words, how does a solo or one person library serving a membership association-like audience, with limited time and money, take advantage of new technology?  I decided to focus on two trends:  cloud computing and open source.  This won’t surprise anyone who pokes around the rest of this site but the maturity and growth of these two areas offer some really interesting opportunities.

The slide deck (below) gives you a feel for my talk but these were the basic areas:

  • use cloud computing to push desktop support (low value, not information related) off local computers and minimize support burdens, upgrades, and cost of software.  Potentially, this would include shifting the responsibility of word processing – the primary lawyer desktop software – to a cloud app.  I mention Microsoft Web Apps, Office365,‘s open source apps, and Google Chromebook kiosks;
  • the library as content creator can take advantage of ebook tools – Calibre, Sigil, and Pressbook’s self-hosted plugin for WordPress – to create books.  These can then be made available as a member benefit or an upsell to members (and others).  The content challenge – where does it come from – can be sorted out by collaborating with other libraries to create joint publications and minimize each library/bar association’s burden;
  • using open source and other free software to add value and move the library, and especially the staff, up the value chain by offering services customized to the lawyer members.  The examples I gave were for the bar association to host its own RSS server with Tiny Tiny RSS, if the members would use it; ownCloud on Canadian cloud servers to create a non-US Dropbox alternative for wary lawyers; WebRTC delivery of video through the Web browser instead of using separate chat or video live reference apps; and kiosk tools to allow circulation of inexpensive tablets with ebooks on them.

Small membership or subscription law libraries are almost wholly dependent on grants.  Metro libraries can draw on larger membership bases and historic libraries may have endowments.  But in general, these are not the libraries who can – or even should – be spending a lot of time and money on commercial “enterprise” products to support their members.  If there is an opportunity to use cloud or open source to leverage the same type of advantages they hold for the lawyers themselves, the bar association might be able to create new value for what is otherwise a very stale offering.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.