How Law Libraries Make Money

That was a search query someone used to arrive at my site. And it got me thinking about the many times I’ve spoken with law library governance groups about how the law library can be a revenue generator. It’s tricky, and elusive, but here are some ideas about how and whether a law library can be anything other than a cost center.

I’ll start with some basic assumptions, which you may or may not agree with:

  1. No law library can be sustained entirely on money it generates from services or other activity. Without organizational funding from a law school, firm, government budget, court fine income, or subscriber base, it doesn’t exist. A law library as revenue generator will still never be a self-sufficient law library.
  2. All law libraries are either serving professionals who have legal research experience, which may soften their interest in paid services, or citizens who, because of limits on law librarians providing legal services, may not be able to take advantage of some paid services.

Some Caveats, Quid Pro Quos

I put these out there because any discussion of a law library generating revenue is often tied to operational reviews and whether there is a way to reduce that primary, organizational, revenue stream. There is almost always a way to move away from 100% primary funding in non-law firm law libraries.

Those are the law libraries I’ll look at from this point on, although some revenue options might work if a private firm provides legal research support to clients (say, a general counsel of a client that doesn’t have a law librarian). There are nominal chargeback or, more positively, showback options originating out of IT management that would work for private law firm libraries but they’re mostly administrative. The cost of operating the law library doesn’t actually change. If the law firm management supports cost recovery – a well trodden private law firm library topic – then the law library can show a more than nominal offset. But legal research is often seen as overhead because there’s a perception it’s in support of, but not actual, legal services.

I’ll confess my bias, which you may already have guessed, which is that I tend to stay away from revenue recovery in law libraries. Because of the way law libraries are funded, it usually means the people using the law library have already paid: tuition, membership fees, taxes.

If there is a baseline fee – tax, tuition, whatever – then the better approach is to raise that base fee rather than to create service fees on top for what may be considered essential services. If there is a need to charge something in addition, I lean towards a single encompassing charge that opens up a second tier of premium services. Otherwise, you can end up nickel and diming people and I think that’s counter productive in a service environment.

One reason I like the premium tier approach is that it can be hard to know what law library users will pay for. If you create a premium tier, you can put a variety of services in it, and switch out unused ones for new services that might get more traction. You might survey your users, but I don’t think that’s always a valid approach. My experience is that respondents to this sort of survey like all the services, but won’t necessarily end up using them. It also misses identifying services that might attract new, and therefore possibly unsurveyed, law library users. There will be some trial and error in figuring out what to do here.

Make Money

If you decide to charge for things, you have two directions: positive and negative. Positive fees are those that people can opt into. Negative ones, like overdue fines, are ones they incur for bad behavior. Whether you can charge for something will depend not only on your environment but your library’s and other governing policies. A recent discussion of circulation fines in government libraries shows the variety of limitations (AALL members only). Long story short, even if you want to do something, there maybe a policy by your funder that limits you.

You should start with an inventory of the services you offer. Some of those will be non-monetizable because they’re the bread and butter of law library service. Some might go beyond that. If you don’t currently circulate books, then charging for overdues isn’t an option. To take advantage of a revenue source may require a policy change.

Nothing below should suggest you shouldn’t charge for these services. I am, however, going to suggest that some may be so essential that charging extra for them is detrimental, or that you need to have a certain scale or size law library to be able to generate enough revenue to make it worth while.

As soon as staff have to start managing payments, money, invoices and outstanding amounts, every cost should be balanced by the loss of staff time it causes. We write off over $2,000 a year in uncollectable costs because lawyers don’t pay invoices. That’s money we won’t ever get and the staff time it took to manage it is also lost.


These are the services pretty much every law library will provide.

Photocopying. Every law library should charge for photo copying if only to offset the cost of the machine, paper and toner. If your library is like mine, this revenue source is diminishing as more research is captured digitally for later use (so watch your legal research licenses for statements that you’re keeping downloaded content for only 90 days – can you guarantee lawyers are doing that?).

Printing. This is harder. Because it often involves a staff person, it’s not always the winner it could be. Law schools will be familiar with the wide variety of policies and approaches captured by the University of Richmond’s printing survey. If you are primarily providing electronic resources and you charge for all printing, that can create a negative perception. Print management software can help and having staff who can help clear jams, refund for bad prints, etc. will be necessary. These will subtract from the revenue generated.

Printing is a good example of how a policy to charge can provide a throttle on misuse of resources. At the end of the day, charging for printing may be good not for the revenue but for eliminating waste and wear and tear on your machines.

One more thought on printing. If you want to force people to print instead of saving or email to themselves, you’ll need to substantially limit the functionality of your systems. I don’t think that’s worth it.

Document Delivery. This is easy to charge for, but harder to justify. Like the overhead discussion for private law libraries, if you’re essentially sending someone a web page or PDF, are you really doing something worth charging for? Our library charges for anything we deliver from paper, even if it’s sent by email, because it takes staff time to do that. Also, if it starts in paper, it’s more likely that the person asking for it can’t get access to it in any other way. But we don’t charge for documents sent that originate from a database. Massachusett’s Social Law Library is a great example of a library generating revenue from document delivery.  Some of that success will be due to an enviable collection and dedicated delivery staff.

Reference. A number of law libraries charge for this. Not for meat and potatoes research but for project-based work. The audience for this is small and pulls a staff person offline to handle. Those trained to do legal research may not see the value, unless it’s a time saver. Those not trained to do legal research probably can’t take advantage of it, since legal research, through selection of information, can cross the unauthorized practice line.  The question it raises for me is whether you can charge the actual cost of staff time in hours plus subscription database fees to make this a real product, or do you charge a nominal fee realizing it doesn’t net out to zero.

Circulation and ILL. Some libraries – like my current one – don’t circulate. We do ILL through other libraries, who get the books back for us from lawyers. In public law libraries, there is a potential for a positive charge here – circulation privileges – as well as a negative – fines. Unlike public libraries that are looking at whether fines are a deterrent to use, public law libraries probably don’t have that issue. However, fines can be hard to collect if someone doesn’t need a law library regularly (or ever again, say, after a divorce). The same goes for the cost of that $300 text that is gone and now has to be replaced. It can generate revenue but the staff costs and collection issues will draw down the actual revenue impact.

These are not all either/or choices. Some of these would work well in a premium tier. Access to a law library doesn’t mean free access to 100% of everything and the ability to take it home.

Beyond Basics

There are lots of things the law library does that can be monetized in a premium tier or in a one-off subscription for people interested.

  • Sell catalog records. If you’re doing original cataloging and not making your catalog visible to others for simple copy cataloging, you can resell the MARC records.
  • Update services. Law libraries have RSS feeds, daily update emails on case law tailored to practice areas, and other current awareness tools. As part of a larger package, they’re a good revenue generator. And you capture e-mail addresses for other marketing purposes (so long as you’ve asked to do so).
  • Physical functions. If you’re in a courthouse, you can create resources for visitors. Meeting rooms are the most obvious. We installed a video conferencing system – used by the courts and our membership – in a room in Hamilton County (OH). In my current library, we have an LCD projector, screen, and conference table big enough for 10.
  • Host CLE. We originally did this for free but then people won’t necessarily show. A $5 fee isn’t going to fix a budget, but it can offset people who don’t show. In my current library, we stopped doing CLE because the room was dedicated as a classroom, and so wasn’t functional otherwise. Instead, we turned it into research space which can be used all day.

This is not an exhaustive list. But this post is already overlong and no matter how many additional ideas there are, none are going to generate enough revenue to offset primary funding. All law libraries should do whatever they can to operate in a responsible manner, and charging people for what they use to offset the use of tax revenue or other fee income is reasonable. At the same time, discussions with oversight boards needs to be clear about what the actual impact is: generating revenue means taking staff time out of current service delivery to manage the revenue generation.

If you have additional services you’ve seen monetized in a law library, I’d love to see them in the comments.

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.

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