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Dangers of library science denial | Joan Rataic-Lang

Monday, October 19, 2020 @ 11:43 AM | By Joan Rataic-Lang

Joan Rataic-Lang %>
Joan Rataic-Lang
They warned us when I was studying for my master’s degree in library and information studies that libraries are always the first to suffer when budgets are cut. We were told to always be prepared to justify our existence.

I followed that advice when I was a law firm library director; marketing library services to the lawyers was always front of mind. New databases, new tools and texts and new ways of doing things were of no value if they were not used by the lawyers in the firm.

It wasn’t enough for the library to inform; we had to evaluate new services and teach lawyers how to use them. The librarians docketed their time; decisions were made collaboratively with lawyers; and the librarians attended practice group meetings. We were integral and integrated. I had a direct line to my users and they saw the value proposition of the library, its services and the associated budget. We have not seen the wholesale closure of libraries in firms; firms recognize the value and continue to support libraries. 

Those large law firms do even more for their lawyers. If someone is struggling they are caught by the safety net their firm provides: mentors; practice group heads; libraries stocked with resources and librarians to help; internally developed professional development; employee health benefits; student committees; associate committees and more.

The problem is, most lawyers in Ontario do not work in those well-serviced law firms. 

So what about those who are in firms without that level of support? And what about sole practitioners who have worked on their own for years or those who have recently been called to the bar and gone straight into their own practice, because no one will hire them? Where do they get help? 

The Law Society of Ontario (LSO), the Member Assistance Program, the Coach and Advisor Network, a practice management helpline and the great library. I daresay by the questions we get in my county courthouse library, they rely on us too. We, the librarians, are teachers, advisers and instructors. We never give an opinion but we help those who do. The librarians at the Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA) provide in-depth research, collecting the information needed to answer sophisticated legal issues by those who do not have the financial resources to support an in-house library.

The quick things that can be found easily on CanLII are not what we are asked to help with. We find and provide precedents, checklists, guides, secondary sources, indicate what the leading cases in a particular area of law are, note-up, help find the governing legislation, track legislative changes and find legislative intent. We teach licensing candidates and new calls how to effectively research.

The library I work in is one of 47 county courthouse libraries across the province, all of which are integral to their local legal community. Recently the governance model for courthouse libraries in Ontario changed. The Legal and Information Resource Network (LIRN) replaced LibraryCo and is supposed to continue its work “to deliver legal information and library services to licensees.” In a report of the Professional Development and Competence Committee to establish LIRN it says, “Its key objectives are to:

  • Fulfil the law society’s regulatory mandate to ensure that the public is served by lawyers and paralegals with high standards of learning and competence;
  • Support the ongoing professional development of licensees, with specific emphasis on the use and application of legal information, legal research and legal training content and activities;
  • Establish a platform that provides access to information for all licensees; and to
  • Offer a supportive and robust range of services targeted to the needs of licensees.”  

There’s a group in Ontario advocating to reduce lawyers fees by a minimum of 25 per cent. The line from that to us is could be pretty straight. It worries me.

The LIRN board have taken their mandate seriously. They are working towards a forward thinking, modern view of library services. Strategic planning has begun and will include listening and learning, needs assessment, evidence based decisions and consultation with stakeholders.

Ultimately, if allowed to do its work, a cost-effective and efficient system will be the result. The Ontario courthouse library system could be a model of excellence in Canada, making resources available to lawyers across the province in a timely and secure manner, supporting a culture of continuous learning, saving time and money and facilitating good decision making. 

As COVID-19 affects our economy it may seem like a gift to lawyers to reduce their LSO fees — but if that affects library budgets it will be a double-edged sword. The same people who might appreciate the small decrease in fees will suffer proportionally more if the libraries they have become dependent on cease to exist.

Former LSO treasurer Malcolm Mercer said: “For those who suggest that there should be a radical reduction in the costs borne by lawyers, the key question is what, if anything, should no longer be done? This is always a legitimate question but one which requires focus on what is actually being done, looking both at purpose and efficacy of the work.”

Libraries play a role in competence, professional development, access to justice and mentoring. Until LIRN has had the opportunity to lay the foundation for the future of courthouse libraries in Ontario, libraries should continue to be funded. 

Joan Rataic-Lang is executive director and library director of the Toronto Lawyers Association.

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