Public Law Librarianship in Action

By Caroline Nevin

I’m now in my fourth year as CEO of what is almost certainly the largest independently-run public law library system in North America, Courthouse Libraries – BC. We operate law libraries inside 30 courthouses, providing an extensive list of virtual and in-person services to members of the legal community, intermediaries and public across British Columbia, a province twice as large as the State of California.

We are a non-profit society, accountable to a 10-member board comprised of members of the legal community and public. We are core-funded entirely by the Law Society of BC and Law Foundation of BC, with project funding from other entities like the Notary Foundation of BC. We don’t pay rent, but neither do we receive any court, government, municipal or academic institutional IT infrastructure or admin support. 

Lonely tree in meadow

I mention all this because it has taken me some time to understand just how different this model is to most law libraries  in Canada and the US. And how it’s allowed us to innovate and experiment in ways that just wouldn’t be possible if our branches operated independently. The model has some fantastic benefits, and seeing it in action has made me a committed advocate for open access to law libraries and their legal information, resources, people and technology. 

We should make it easy for anyone, anywhere to get what they need to manage their own or a client’s legal matter. Making it hard for some and easy for others means we are complicit in ongoing, systemic discrimination.  

Last month, I was asked to speak to a group of local & regional bar association leaders in the province of Ontario. Unlike BC, Ontario has yet to evolve from individual bars operating local law libraries serving only the lawyers, judges and sometimes paralegals living or working in their geographic area. These lawyers were being asked to consider whether that was the right model for the future, and I was there to answer questions about BC’s experience. 

In the discussion sessions, I was struck by the number of people who voiced fear of ‘losing control’ of their local libraries and staff, and who had a hard time seeing the value of a different model. It was like visiting a foreign land with a culture that was hard to understand because we’d each only known one model of organizing the world. All I could offer was a first-hand account of the positives that stem from the partial centralization and full democratization of law libraries and their resources. When we focus on “lifting all boats” with the shared resources we have, we can do so much more to provide meaningful access to justice for the public and to ensure legal competency in the profession.

I’m sure you know that BC had devastating floods last year – ruined farmland was strewn with the carcasses of drowned animals, and trucking and shipping ground to a trickle. It provided a visceral, concrete example of why municipal and regional authorities – with their small individual tax bases – can’t efficiently or effectively manage bigger issues outside their geographic borders. The ‘Atmospheric River’ was unusual, but the reality is that it just overwhelmed under-resourced water management capabilities across multiple jurisdictions in two countries. There were simply too few shared resources to manage the pressures of a foreseeable natural event.

Road flooded in British Columbia
Source: Global TV

Some challenges are too big to be effectively managed by smaller entities. In the library world that includes things like IT infrastructure, staff management & development, shared cataloguing, and efficient negotiations with publishers. Trying to do all those things in duplicate across multiple sites is a poor use of limited dollars. But other things CAN be local, like input on publication purchases, hosting of locally relevant education, and support to community intermediaries (like public librarians) who field legal questions. There’s a lot that can be done with a partially centralized approach that protects the value of what happens at the local level. 

Like all major institutions, the justice ecosystem shifts slowly. But COVID has helped us all leap forward at faster speeds than we ever thought possible. I’m hopeful that more people will be interested in the BC story of public law libraries and will want to learn more about our trials, errors and learnings. Librarians work to make the world a better place…and it’s the job of leaders and administrators to clear the way for that to happen. If you want to find out more about how we do things in BC, you’re welcome to contact me directly at


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.