Closing a Law Library

The Justice minister in the Northwest Territories has announced they are closing, through defunding, the courthouse law library.  Not surprisingly, that has caused negative reactions from lawyers and law librarians.  The CBC’s coverage – here, here, here – and the Canadian Lawyer‘s covers the ground pretty clearly.  On the face of it, however, the government seems to be making a sound decision based on the use of government funds.

Good Data for Closing

Unlike many discussions about closing libraries, the NWT Justice department has been keeping track of data related to the court law library’s activities.  They may not be the best metrics but they are typical of all of the courthouse law libraries I know of.  The data from the articles:

  • 984 visits in 2015
  • 385 books checked out in 2015
  • $467,000 to run the library in 2015
  • 48% drop in reference requests between 2009 and 2015
  • 28% drop in walk-in traffic (based on voluntary sign-ins) over the same period
  • Lawyers and Justice department staff made up 94% of visitors in between 2011 and 2015
  • The law library regularly overspent its budget, which in 2015 was $223,000

What strikes me from this data is that this was a closure that has been foreseeable for some time.   Apparently, that’s what the Minister, a former solo lawyer, thought too:

the Government … had libraries in many of the communities which could be used by the lawyers…. Those have all been closed down. And I think that what’s happened is the nature of legal research has changed, so the vast majority of it, as I understand, is now being done online. Yes, there are certainly services like CanLII which are free; other ones such as Westlaw you must pay for, but I think that’s just a part of practising as a lawyer. There are going to be some costs.

In other words:  we’ve been closing our law libraries for some time, legal research has changed for lawyers, and law is a business so you should expect to pay some overhead for research.

Low Usage, Low Dollars

Where is the Public?

Some social media posts have raised access to justice, which has become a catchall phrase invoked to cover things from citizen access to government information all the way to loan issues for law students, as a reason to keep the library open.  There is no question voluntary sign-in sheets are a poor approximation for proper gate-keeping but it’s also a common tool.  In light of declining foot traffic in other courthouse libraries (and other libraries generally), the low usage by the public is not that surprising.  There doesn’t seem to be any information to show where the public are getting their legal information but it seems fair to say it’s not from the court library.  [Not sure what this means, but there appears to be an issue with where self-represented litigants in the Northwest Territories are getting their legal information, but a 2016 inventory of resources doesn’t mention libraries.]

Cost Per Lawyer

Others have raised the issue of lawyers and government staff access.  From what it appears, the government was picking up the bill for this library.  At the budgeted rate, each NWT lawyer would probably be paying ~$3,000 per head to run that library at budget; double that to run it at the actual cost of the library.  One lawyer’s comments about a report in 2013 from the NWT lawyer regulator was interesting; it would be an interesting report to read.  Apparently they made very specific suggestions for which books to cut. (I was a bit surprised not to see any mention under the Law Society of Northwest Territories, the lawyer regulator, public resources to the court law library)

Collection Needs Funding, Not Cuts

Unfortunately – and speaking from the perspective of someone who has cut nearly $1 million in book costs – the cost of print collections accelerates well beyond the ability to trim.  Let’s say NWT was able to halve its print collection (and I’ll use a 75% collection, 25% staff budget) to bring that $467,000 down to about $292,000.  At the low end of the typical 10-15% price increases Canadian law libraries are experiencing, they would have returned to that full amount within about 3-4 years but with a much smaller collection.

The decision to close the law library – as so many recent closures reflect – comes down to usage and funding.  In this case, the government was the primary – although not apparently sole – funder for the library.  And governments using public dollars to fund courthouse law libraries often have more important uses for those dollars.

NWT is Different

Canadian legal publishers don’t publish many books about the law of the Northwest Territories.  Carswell listed one title that mentioned NWT; LexisNexis Canada’s store doesn’t even list it as a jurisdiction.  Which is not to say there aren’t local books.  But it would not be a huge leap to understand that, given the extensive collections on CanLII and Federal government Web sites, the idea that everything is on the Internet might actually feel more accurate in the Northwest Territories.

It’s hard to know.  But it’s a good example of why law libraries need to keep solid metrics that show what their value is.  And in government-funded environments, it often comes down to foot traffic because the libraries are physical manifestations.  As soon as the usage becomes sufficiently disconnected from the costs to maintain, courthouse law libraries have serious issues.

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.