This is my third week of self-quarantine. I was out of the country – so there’s two weeks. Then I went to the US to extract a kid from university, so my clock reset. As we begin to settle into doing things differently, I am starting to think about what lies ahead. I was on a phone call last week that had me thinking about law libraries.


I’m a dog person. I like cats but from a distance. Some of my best ideas occur while walking the dog. The current one snuffles along while I scan the horizon for skunks, raccoons, fox, and coyotes. The rest of my brain gets used for other things.

Part of a series of photos our dog suffered through so that those away at university could get updates.

We were talking about some of these future issues. Like vacation. If we’re all working from home for a few months, I expect there’ll be an impact at year end when vacation is supposed to have been used up. We don’t allow roll over of holiday.

In Ontario, this isn’t a vague policy. Some employees have to take leave by the 10th month. In our organization, we are warned who hasn’t taken time by the end of September. If work-from-home reduces vacation use (and you can’t go anywhere), imagine fitting annual vacation leave into a 6-month or 9-month year.

People may not want – or be able – to travel or take time off. This has been a struggle even in the best of times. So now someone is going to come up with a plan around what we do with banked but unusable vacation leave.

This is not future casting. This is just thinking and planning. For me, strategy is a bit like driving. You do your best to avoid potholes but you’re most focused on getting to somewhere. Ideally, it will be somewhere you intended to go.

Acceleration of Public Access Shift

The Georgia state supreme court Chief Justice recently noted that law libraries have diminished as a resource for legal professionals. Instead, they are increasingly serving the public.

Historically, law libraries were the place lawyers and judges went to do legal research. … That paradigm has quickly faded, and many law libraries today sit all but abandoned as monuments to legal tomes, devoid of lawyers. … Today, just about the only people who go to law libraries are non-lawyers.”

– Chief Justice Harold Melton

Like Massachusetts and other states, Georgia will be looking at using law libraries to deliver self-help centers. The end goal isn’t better informed litigants, although that may be a side benefit. Self-help centers and tools are intended to assist in the administration of justice.

It’s an interesting challenge because some membership law libraries see a pivot to public delivery as a possible future state. But the law-library-as-self-help-center isn’t necessarily about access to legal information. Legal information is just part of the operation. It also involves online forms and resources that shift the person in need of help out of the courthouse.

Law libraries outside of law firms will need to have an answer for public access. Publicly-accessible law libraries will have to plan for how their delivery model shifts if legal professionals stop using their library.

The Courthouse is No Longer Central

If you’ve followed this blog for more than a couple of years, you’ll know that I’ve talked about a delivery shift, from the courthouse to the public library.

Same information, same people, same service, different location. For a long time, the courthouse has been a central space for a decreasing number of people. It’s not a value judgment about law libraries. It’s simply that location matters.

If you haven’t read this piece about the Gregg County (TX) courthouse law library, give it a whirl. It’s a nice look at how the library is doing everything right, and a good profile of a mature lawyer who seems typical of the bar.

Now, in all fairness, there are some websites I can make do backflips, but for a lot of stuff, I want to look at the books .

– Ebb Mobley, Texan lawyer

As we have all seen, lawyer access to legal information has a huge electronic component. Or, as Mr. Mobley says, ” electronic whatnot these days have put libraries on your desk….” It’s not that print doesn’t have a place. It’s just that we often store it in courthouses, and the courthouse is losing focus.

One thing the pandemic has done is caused an instant shift in court use of virtual technology. We have seen repeated stories over the year, like this one in McLennan County (TX) a year or so ago, of the physical courtroom displacing the physical law library. I wonder if that displacement may be a thing of the past.

Not that displacement is over. But why would you build a new courthouse with a law library? If you need the space for courtrooms, build those at the start. But how many courtrooms do you need? If you can figure out the audio, video, and permanance (stenography, recording) of virtual courts, what is the role of a courtroom?

The bar has been moving out to the suburbs for decades. The choices courts are making right now may impact the need for litigants and those in the criminal justice system to use courthouses. Why would you want a law library in a place no-one is visiting?

The Fragility of the Profession

This area requires more digging than I am capable of right now. But let’s think about a couple of aspects of the “people who deliver law library services”. I’m using the AALL 2019 salary survey as a resource point, but I realize this is squishy.

  • we have onboarding problems, whether because we require too many credentials or we’re too niche a knowledge domain supporting professionals who have overlapping knowledge. Why would a new librarian choose law? Is our pipeline through people who have left the legal profession, which is itself a throttle on diversity?
AALL 2019 Salary Survey chart showing education of respondents (n=2657) who identified as “professional” librarians. This chart doesn’t show what’s required to be hired for a position. But imagine the real and opportunity cost, today, for someone to get both an MLS and a JD.
  • we have a profession that is extremely well-seasoned, with nearly half reporting more than 16 years as a professional librarian. Does that equate to old? As an #old, I’m not suggesting age or seasoning is bad. But a lack of less seasoned candidates will impact the ability to keep law libraries open.
AALL 2019 Salary Survey data showing years as a professional librarian. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of the 16+ section.

As I said, this isn’t solid. But I think we have a people problem. Courthouses like those in Grayson County (TX) and Vanderburgh County (IN) that want (may be statutorily required) to have a law librarian have struggled to replace staff who die. We work in environments that are not typically conducive to succession planning.

If one of the long term results of the pandemic is a softening for the need of courthouse law libraries, the inability to fill positions will be an impact. A funder who is facing both a challenge filling a law librarian role and requests to fund other things may decide to close the library. If law libraries are closing, new librarians may not want to enter the legal research field. That reinforcing feedback loop will need to be beaten back.

Sometimes things don’t turn out the way we expect, even if the final outcome is a positive thing.

We live in interesting times. If you have read this far, you may think I don’t have much hope for law libraries. I do. But where our path may have zigged and zagged, like a sailboat tacking gently across a lake with the wind behind it, I think the pandemic is a fundamental jibe. Some of our law libraries have a new destination and we will reach it. The question for many of us is how best to plan to make that a destination we desire.