Untether the Legal Information

One aspect of access to legal information is … well, access. There is a tension between making information available and making it usable. What if we were to envision a world where not everything is online, where not everyone had a web-enabled endpoint, where multiple information formats were possible? How might we try to address some of those challenges from something other than a fixed-location law library?

Three words: law library bookmobile.

It’s an idea, not a thing, although I can picture it in my mind’s eye.

For one thing, that imaginary world? That’s reality. And for the same reasons, a bookmobile isn’t quite right either. But if we can leave behind the book– label for a moment – #notallbooks – and focus on the mobile part, there’s something worth developing there.

What if we focused on how to deliver information in a portable manner that kept the professional service close to the information? This picture, which shows a Little Free Library, a typical law library, an endpoint, and a bookmobile – the Omnilex! (no, not that one – inspired by Transport of Delight) – arrayed against access to research staff and portability, is my starting point.

A drawing of 4 quadrants - a little library, a regular library, a bookmobile, and a hand holding a device
A drawing contrasting fixed location, book collection sites and portable information.

There’s lots to quibble with here if you’re so inclined but here was the basic thinking: the bottom two quadrants are information without support. Even if you count reference attorneys from commercial legal publishers for legal professionals to use, I don’t see how that scales for people not using a lawyer. If someone is using information at the bottom, they’re on their own: the oft-mythologized law-library-in-a-box, a box too small for a person.

The Little Free Library, like the physical book collection in a law library, has limited portability. Even if you consider circulation moving portability to the right, how many books can a person carry? Can a non-member, a non-student or faculty, borrow a book?

The top right quadrant is the goal. How to make legal information accessible so that people with legal issues (including legal professionals) can access it without an endpoint, without choosing only one format (web OR book)?

Law Library Locations

When we think of law libraries, we tend to think of a location. People go to a law library; they access legal information. Courthouses, universities, and so on. Stock photos tend to show book collections, which are still a part of many – most? – law libraries.

Service delivery may be able to break free from a location: embedded librarians in practice groups, chat services, digital document delivery, and so on. But we retain a space, for ourselves to work from and, often, for others to visit to use the same resources we have.

This tends to be supplemented with remote access resources (bottom right quadrant) which may or may not disintermediate the law librarian entirely. Even if it doesn’t, it requires the researcher (often a lawyer) to seek out the parallel channel for professional support, from the library or publisher.

Limited Access

But these locations are a limitation on information access. Academic law libraries are not always open and they are not always available to non-university audiences. I love exam time, because Twitter fills with complaints about non-law students being (or needing to be) banned.

Courthouses have more significant problems though. In the past few decades, there has been an increase in courthouse security. So, in addition to courthouse law libraries:

  • operating only when courthouses are open, which tends to be 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, when most people – including lawyers – are working,
  • limiting access to lawyers or, a subset, subscribing lawyers,
  • not always being staffed even when open,
  • not always having either staff or anything more than a computer terminal,

there is the issue of the people needing access actually being able to access the building where the information is provided.

From an April 7, 2018, New York Times article on eviction court, and people accessing the courthouse.

The legal profession does a poor job of keeping data about itself. Anecdotally, there is a belief – which I agree with – that most lawyers are transactional lawyers, and these lawyers have migrated away from congested municipal centers – and courthouses. They are found more often in suburbs or places close to their clients.

It’s not that the data doesn’t exist – I’ve done a heat map of Ontario’s courthouses, courthouse law libraries, and its legal professionals that shows a point in time. It’d be nice to test whether the shift has happened, using an older data set of legal professional zip codes.

But even without it, we can see how a courthouse-based law library might be keeping the information in a location that is less relevant to legal professionals, and less accessible to everyone else.

And that’s just physical access. Some legal publishers license ebooks in a way that makes them difficult to deliver in a public setting, and will not always license their databases for all audiences.

Loosening the Strings

Bookmobiles are still common in public libraries. Some public libraries have been trying a variant – I’ve found pop-up libraries Colorado and Ontario. Both of these concepts enable deliver of a mixture of formats. This is important for a couple of reasons that are the same for law libraries:

  • format may matter in how the information is used. Lawyers may not use picture books, but form books are often desirable in a print format for research, even if the lawyer will want a database to get an electronic copy.
  • It’s not even about a computer or not a computer. Pew’s surveys indicate 89% of people are online. Some public libraries are lending wireles network hotspots, but – even ignoring the scale, cost, privacy, and security issues that it creates – that’s still just getting people shifted to the right, accessing information on their own.
  • Non-smart phone users range as high as 26% for rural citizens and 40% for those over 65%. These people can’t even get to the bottom right quadrant of my drawing.
Photo from Overdrive's Digital Bookmobile site of the 42 custom truck
Photo from Overdrive’s Digital Bookmobile site of the 42 custom truck

I was really struck with OverDrive‘s (yes, the public library ebook-monolith Overdrive) Digital Bookmobile. It’s an ermahgerd berkmerbeels approach, where the 42-foot long vehicle stops at a location (869 in a handful of years) to create excitement around a school or public library collection and services.

As you’d imagine for a modern take, it has about 10 computers with internet access, touchscreens, tablets. Digital library things. No books despite its name.

The Law Library Bookmobile

The Omnilex(r) would take some of the old school bookmobile concepts and marry them with the new. It would use collection strategies and service deployments that are already familiar to law librarians.

  • Hours. The Omnilex would be intended to be available mornings, evenings and weekends, and would have light or no coverage during typical 9 to 5 hours.
  • Location. At 42- or 53-feet long, this could be tricky but I think it would be easy to strike up a partnership with Walmart. They have large parking lots, they already have a policy surrounding large vehicles parking overnight, and they are a place where lots of people are going already. Heck, even law firms are working out of Walmart.
  • Rotation. Without a fixed building, the Omnilex can adapt to changing demographic needs, and locate where the need is rather than where the building is. It might move daily or it might stay 2 days to give people time to visit or to return. It would stick to a schedule so that people could plan a visit as their legal issues arose.
  • Access. The Omnilex would be low, like a lowboy, to ensure it’s accessible by a ramp, unlike many older, historic courthouses.
  • Collection. The collection would include a print collection based on the pareto principle – what is used 80% of the time. It would include the items that law librarians know researchers prefer to page through. Like the Overdrive truck, it would have computer terminals, and wireless for those who want to use their own device. It might include tablets in order to utilize ebooks and expand the number of books available for use. Tablets could also provide access to self-help apps and online filing.
  • Staff. The portability is just part of how we get to the top right quadrant of that drawing. There would be a reference law librarian who could provide the same assistance available in a courthouse.

An Omnilex could be a partnership between a law library, legal aid, public library, foundation, law firm, academic law library, etc. This doesn’t need to be something that emanates from a government / judicial branch.

Book circulation and remote database access only gets us just into the lower right corner of the top left quadrant. We’re doing that already. A law library that is located in a public library is further into the quadrant, because it removes a lot of the access limitations.

Something like the Omnilex could blend the needs surrounding law library format and services with public library delivery models. We can find ways to deliver legal information and reference support so much more creatively than from fixed locations.

So long as it’s not called a bookmobile.

[Note: this post was partly inspired by an Al Jazeera post on mobile libraries, including Biblioburro. While I love the idea of animal-powered mobile law libraries, I think the looseleafs would be onerous.]