For whatever reason, my post on law libraries blocking access to people from other disciplines struck a chord. As a commenter pointed out, law libraries make decisions that they think will best suit their audience. I’m going to take a second look at that idea, but from the perspective of decision-making. As a law library director, are my only choices A or the opposite of A, or do I have the ability to make decisions that are in between?

This is not a post about law library space, but I’ll start there. I think the approach can be useful in any decision-making. This is particularly true if you’ve inherited someone else’s decisions and wonder if there is a different way.

We see the decision-making around collection framed this way sometimes: either you’re print-focused or you are digital. But it’s not that easy and format choices require an understanding of usage and audience. Even then, your decision-making analysis can look beyond your current utilization and see opportunities for growth.

One aspect of the prohibited access in law libraries – academic, government, courthouse, membership, what have you – is that it lacks nuance. Let me try to illustrate my thinking.

A [generic – I’m not talking about, even subtext, any specific] law library’s community includes 600 researchers. It prohibits access to anyone but that community unless the outsiders are also doing legal research. There is no assessment about whether the community members must be doing legal research.

So far, so easy. But as I look at that law library, I want to know:

  • how many actual seats are in that library, since there is apparently a space scarcity issue? Are there 600 seats? Are there 200 seats?
  • how often are those seats at capacity? 8am to noon but not afterwards? Weekends? Evenings? Overnight? 100% of the time?
  • how are those seats used? are 100% of the 600 researchers silent? is there behavior that would be intolerable exhibited by people outside the community but that is tolerated if exhibited by people inside the community?
  • how are the researchers using those seats? how much of their time is spent doing legal research? is writing a paper (brief, memo, essay) an acceptable use? How is the community member’s paper writing different from a non-community member’s paper writing?
  • are all the seats out in the open or are they closed (carrels or rooms with doors)?
  • if outsiders do not use the law library except for legal research, is there a missed opportunity to create familiarity? In other words, is there a way to assess whether the people that are prohibited for non-legal research purposes every come back just to do legal research?

So many questions. And many, many answers. Sometimes, with planning, you can come up with a solution with nuance.


Over the last year, I had the opportunity to visit a bunch of law libraries. #busmansholiday. I was most interested in how they used their space, not what their policies were surrounding it. Not surprisingly, there was a wide variety of space use.

We all have primary audiences that we need to satisfy. My experience suggests that the primary audience rarely taps out our space or services 100% of the time. In whatever remains, there is an opportunity to grow new audiences, create outreach and partnerships, and make decisions that bring your utilization as close to 100% as possible.

I do wonder about law firm libraries, here. The reduction of space that has happened in so many law firm libraries may reflect the under-utilization of that space. It’s harder to grow utilization of space in a corporate environment, I think, since the community is so clearly delineated.

One law library I visited had a study carrel for every law student. It was beautiful. Some of them were clearly homes away from home – comforters, snacks, spare writing tools and highlighters. I loved that the students thought of that space so much as an extension of themselves. It was not the only space available for the community, but it was dedicated to the community.

Academic law library with student carrels on the left (2 floors) and collection on the right

Another had a quiet room, closed off from the rest of the law library. Students who really did not want conversations could – like a quiet car on the train – select their seating in that space.

Quiet room in an academic law library in Chicago

The point I’m trying to make is that not all of our space is already at 100% utilization. Like our collections, if we treat our space as “just in case” and exclude access, rather than “just in time” and try to find some more nuanced approach, we miss opportunities to increase that utilization.

Open seating space in an academic law library. This is a semi-circle wall, and there is lower seating on the inside of the wall on the opposite side.

Notice that all the photos of space are devoid of students or researchers. I was allowed to take photos by the gracious directors at each location and one point of agreement was not to photograph a researcher. There were still plenty of empty seats to photograph. That’s not an indication of low use. But it’s just a reflection that we can all use our space more extensively.

One attempt at nuance is to close the law library only during law school exams. But that creates uncertainty for other communities. A business student who finds the law library closed to her during law school exams may not come back. A year-round approach would create a consistency that could grow the secondary community.

I really like how the University of Saskatchewan created a resource so that a member of the community (not by discipline) could find an appropriate space.

If you’re in a law library that currently has restrictions on access to a specific community, you might consider:

  • do I have the ability to create spaces (conference rooms, study group areas, collaborative spaces) and how do I plan to get there (construction on new rooms, reclaiming old rooms for new uses, portable walls or temporary
  • do I know what my current space utilization is and does my restriction make any real difference to my utilization (does the prohibition on non-community members actually cause community members to use the space more)?

Electronic Licenses

This is an area that has seen just as much opportunity for nuance as space usage. Sometimes we default to what we think the rest of the world is doing. Licensing two major primary law legal publishers plus one major law journal source. Check the box.

Unlike space, finding a middle ground on an electronic license can take the right publisher and the right circumstances. In my case, it’s usually revolved around the cost of the license and the usage rate on the content.

When you read about purchasing decisions in courthouse law libraries, there often seems to be an either or approach. This may be because purchasing decisions are not always done by law library staff, and so the easiest solution is to just hear out a vendor and buy a monolithic license.

Some of the places you could find a middle ground (based on licenses I’ve worked on):

  • staff-only access. Licence one primary legal publisher but if you need the other for those 5% of cases that aren’t in the primary “comprehensive” license, get access so your staff can pull those.
  • regional access. One license I worked on required 40,000 potential users to get access but most of those were in metropolitan settings. The legal publisher did not want to give them access from their desktop (remote access) so we fine tuned the license to cover very specific remote areas. The researchers in those areas had special passwords in order to get that access. Importantly, all 40K researchers could get to the same content, but the metropolitan researchers had to go to a law library space to access the content.
  • overlapping access. In one case, we licensed a single major publisher and we licensed a second, but minor publisher, for after hours access. In this way, any researcher could access the largest electronic collection during the day (at the library). And any researcher could use the less extensive collection at any time, from their desktop, so that they could continue to work into the evening (or early morning) with the smaller primary law collection.

The point being, of course, that with a bit of analysis around what you’re trying to accomplish, and what your resources (time, expertise, money, space, etc.) are, there are ways to find a way to increase your utilization. If your law library databases are only accessible when the law library is open, then you have substantial after hours and weekend utilization gaps.

Just because you’re closed doesn’t mean your researchers aren’t interested in researching. There may be a way for you to increase your utilization even if it’s with a secondary community or outside of your normal service window.

There’s really no end to this analysis. If you’re in a law firm and have perfected a service to lawyers, can that success be replicated with legal assistants or paralegals or KM or marketing? Sometimes looking at new audiences for your current resources can lead you to new partnerships.

We all have underutilized resources. Staff who may have spare cycles that you could help match an interest or new project to. Collection that sits and isn’t accessed, online or off. Space that gets more dusting than sitting. If we feel that we’ve maximized our services to our primary community, taking a nuanced look at how we can provide resource access to other communities may provide new options to increase utilization.