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Lawyer librarian symbiosis | Ciara Ward

Wednesday, April 14, 2021 @ 10:24 AM | By Ciara Ward

Ciara Ward %>
Ciara Ward
“What would you be without us?” “What have you done for us lately?”

I asked my colleagues these questions, the day after everyone knew about the Legal Information and Resource Network (LIRN) budget cuts. What would lawyers working in Ontario or even our own law associations be without us (Ontario courthouse librarians)? Do you know? I’m not sure I do. We have a symbiotic relationship where you need us in order to thrive, as much as we need you.

Everyone is talking about library advocacy and there are a number of individuals and entities claiming to be working to promote lawyer competency and access to justice (A2J), the flashier acronym), but who has been championing your courthouse libraries and their staff? Especially considering libraries in rural areas. These libraries and their staff work to provide research and reference services, access to legal materials and databases that have prices which are out of the reach of solo and small firms, as well as facilitating continuing education programming, along with networking and mentorship opportunities.

Right now, we all have fatigue. We’re tired of the pandemic and of work and budgets and even the day-to-day things. But you know what fatigues us (courthouse librarians), year after year, without fail? The constant expectation of having to prove our worth. Particularly when many of us work for wonderfully supportive boards, with a local bar that understands and truly appreciates the value we provide on a weekly (and in many cases daily) basis to their practices.

Recently David Whelan of the Great Library at Osgoode Hall wrote an article about the province of Alberta’s decision to close its government library. In his article, “The Post-Expertise Library,” David writes that “the chasm between appreciation and understanding rankles me. People love their libraries but aren’t willing to pay for the very things that make them lovable.” Which I think is a perfect description for what is happening at the moment with Ontario’s courthouse libraries. Not many would openly deny the usefulness of having a fully stocked library, complete with database subscriptions and helpful staff — but they also don’t want to pay for that expertise (nor do they fully understand what this means, or the costs associated). If you want to understand the full weight of a collections budget, just ask a librarian. Any librarian.

In 2020, freshly elected Law Society of Ontario (LSO) benchers wished to deliver swift and tangible change to the lawyers of Ontario — and what is the easiest and quickest way for them to demonstrate action to those who elected them? Demand lower annual fees of the LSO, which in turn reduced lawyer fees. One of the things reduced was their annual competency fees which went from $182 to $159. Remember, every action has an opposite and equal reaction, and your money has to come from somewhere. This time it’s coming from your most valuable resource.

A 10 per cent overall cut to Ontario courthouse libraries’ annual budgets, with some libraries being hit with a full 10 per cent reduction, and others, based on overall budget size, hit with slightly smaller cuts. But cuts are cuts. You can’t advocate for one library, and not for all of them, we all hold equal value for our local bar. We are all affected, and now we are all at a disadvantage.

Just prior to having the budget cuts confirmed an article titled Dangers of library science denial, written by my colleague Joan Rataic-Lang (Toronto Lawyers Association’s library director) was published. At the beginning of the article Joan states: “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.”

This is depressingly accurate; in fact, I was told the same thing during my second week of “library school” (masters and library science program). We have always been, and most likely will continue to be, in a constant state of “we will lose funding/they’re going to close libraries.” It’s exhausting. It’s unmotivating. It’s unfair to staff and to library patrons. How can you expect innovation of someone who is occupied not only with their regular duties, but the added pressure of proving value?

I was recently invited to attend a virtual brainstorming meeting to co-ordinate advocacy efforts. Before the meeting participants were asked to envision what we thought libraries would look like years in the future. I think most librarians would say there’s no library without proper staff, and I think most of us say this because we’re physically in the libraries while court is in session. We are there while you’re on break and need to look something up, when you need to note something up quickly, when you need research help because you don’t have access to all the tools you need to do your job, because maybe those tools are outside of your overhead budget as a small or solo practitioner. We’re there when a judge pops in and asks to check out our annotated Family Law Rules or Criminal Code. And yes, we’re also there when a new associate needs a safe harbour and some Kleenex before going out and facing aggressive senior counsel. We do all of these things. And often times associations in smaller communities are penalized for this. Larger libraries believe our sense of community to be a weakness, when really, it’s our strength.

This is part one of a two-part series.

Disclaimer: views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author only, they do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of other Ontario courthouse librarians, the author’s law associations, or any of their members.

Ciara Ward is the law librarian for the Northumberland County Law Association. She is a researcher, history hoarder, photographer, batgirl and friend. You can contact her via e-mail at:

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