Please do not quote from this paper without first obtaining written permission from the author. It is © 2000 by Jonathan H. Davidson.


This paper discusses the use of the University of Alberta law library by members of the general public. Statistics on the volume of queries to the reference desk by public users were analysed. These statistical data were supplemented with a series of five interviews with public users of the library to elicit information about their individual search process and the types of legal information they are searching for. Further data on the types of legal information sought by the public was derived from an analysis of the legal sources cited in cases litigated by laypersons.

It was found that, despite the dramatic rise in the number of lawsuits brought by individuals acting on their own behalf, the number of people using the University law library to undertake research has actually declined. This can be explained in part by the spectacular growth of the Internet, which makes primary legal materials readily available. Also, most of the cases brought self-represented litigants in Alberta are simple factual disputes which do not require either research or the citation of legal authorities.


There is no “public” law library in Edmonton. Lay individuals seeking legal information, particularly those persons who cannot qualify for legal aid or afford private legal counsel, have access to only a few sources of legal information. Recent research in the Ontario Superior Court indicates that "the number of self-represented people at first appearance now outnumbers the represented 1.6 to 1" (Middlemiss 14). The majority of these litigants represent themselves because they cannot qualify for legal aid. Closer to home, between January 1 and November 21, 1999, final judgements were rendered in thirteen cases before Alberta courts where at least one of the parties was representing him- or herself.

The Edmonton Public Library collects only the most basic legal materials (i.e. Provincial and Federal statutes, Supreme Court of Canada law reports, and a few secondary sources) and thus is not suitable for legal research. Public libraries are not able to meet most people's legal information needs for a number of reasons. Fundamentally, most public libraries simply do not have the legal materials required to answer user questions. This is due in part to the high cost of legal materials but public librarians have also expressed concerns "about the scarcity of Canadian material written at the lay level" (Dewdney 1991, 191; see also Friedland 89).

Another significant barrier is the public librarian's lack of subject knowledge. A 1987 survey of public librarians in Ontario found that none had an LL.B. and the majority had no formal training in the use of legal reference materials. Thus the librarians are unable to properly undertake a reference interview or effectively use the collection (Dewdney 1988, 366).

While the Law Society Library (physically located in the Law Courts building) is nominally open to the general public, its primary mandate is to serve lawyers and judges and it can be a quite intimidating place to the layperson. The University of Alberta Law Library is therefore the most visible institution that the public can use for legal research.

There is consequently a need for more information about where and how laypersons search for legal information. This study will attempt to partially meet this need for further information about public access to legal information by examining the information needs of public users of the University of Alberta Law Library.

Review of Related Literature

Only two studies examine the process a layperson uses to search for legal information and there is no published research that examines public use of academic law libraries in Canada. Moreover, the very few Canadian studies about public access to legal information focus on public libraries in Ontario.

In 1990, the Federal Department of Justice published a report entitled Focus Groups on Public Legal Information Needs and Barriers to Access. This study examined the legal information needs and awareness of information sources among various disadvantaged groups in society including Aboriginals, recent immigrants, and the poor. The study found that:

Personal or peer group experience was the main source of information about the law for the largest portion of group participants… most respondents' first reaction was to ask friends and relatives if they had had similar experiences (13).

The report also noted that other sources of legal information included clergy, social workers, and other "general counselling and referral services" (14). Only a very few individuals had visited (public) libraries or consulted published sources for legal information. No one specifically identified academic law libraries as a potential source for information.

The other published research on the legal information search process was sponsored by the Law Reform Commission of Canada in 1972 (Friedland vii). This study examined not only where and how people search for legal information but also how successful they are in interpreting and using it.

A survey undertaken in three cities in Ontario found that the Government (all three levels) was the most significant source for legal information for the public (Friedland 12). The next most important sources were lawyers in private practice and "other individuals". Libraries ranked seventh (out of nine possible alternatives), only marginally ahead of the Better Business Bureau! The study also found that the information provided by these sources was frequently inaccurate or incomplete (Friedland 14, 17).

Finally, even when people are presented directly with legal sources, they are often unable to use them effectively. Of 35 people who undertook a search of the Federal and Ontario statutes, only 5 found the correct answer and 13 a partially correct answer (Friedland 26). What is even more disturbing is that "subjects tended to stop once they had found what appeared to be a plausible answer. They made no attempt to check for exceptions… [or] amendments" (Friedland 27-28).

In striking contrast to the paucity of research on public access to legal information, there is a plethora of articles concerned with ethical issues about the provision of legal advice (as opposed to legal information). Healey presents an excellent and recent example of this genre while Rice provides the Canadian perspective. Braithwaite explains the issue succinctly:

Because most of the work attorneys due is based on locating, reading, and interpreting written language, there is a very fine line between reference service and the practice of law. Even librarians who also have J.D.’s [i.e. LL.B.’s] and are licensed attorneys are prohibited from dispensing legal advice from the reference desk (40).

This concern about ethical issues implies that there must be a significant volume of public use at academic (and other) law libraries but no one has examined the actual statistics. On this point, Healey comments that:

Most law librarians in institutions open to the public feel that a significant portion of their users are members of the lay public. Statistics on pro se use of the law library are harder to come by [than statistics on pro se litigants], but at least one study from the 1970’s confirmed that pro se patrons were a significant percentage of the users of university law libraries” (132, emphasis added)

The study referred to above is Allen. These data were collected “in the late spring of 1971” (160) and so the information presented in that article is now almost thirty years old. Unfortunately, it has not been revisited.

All of the articles focussing on public usage of academic law libraries are American; a thorough search did not locate any Canadian content. These are not very useful in the Canadian context for several reasons. Most significantly, some American law schools are supported by the State government and so cannot legally deny access to their collection to any taxpayer, whereas others are private and can limit access to the collection as they see fit. In contrast, most Canadian law schools are considered to be public institutions and so place no restrictions on access to their libraries (Friedland 58).

Research Question

The objective of this study is to examine the use of the University of Alberta law library by members of the general public. It endeavours to determine the volume of use by the public, where else they search for legal information, and the subject areas of their legal information needs.

For purposes of this study, the general public includes anyone using the law library for the purpose of undertaking legal research. It excludes law students working on class assignments, faculty (all disciplines), and practising lawyers. Because of the limited volume of outside users, it was decided to include non-law students using the library for purposes of research as part of the general public.

Research Methodology

Library usage data were collected in two ways. The University of Alberta Law Library collects statistics on the volume of reference questions, divided into categories according to the type of user. The staff at the library provided the researcher with the reference desk usage statistics from April 1995 to October 1999. These data are regularly collected and used for internal management purposes.

Certainly not every public user of the library makes the effort to inquire at the reference desk – there may be no staff present when they arrive or they may feel intimidated about talking to a librarian. Unfortunately, no other statistics are kept that distinguish between internal and external users. The library did make available circulation statistics which distinguish between internal and external borrowers but, as the vast majority of the law library's collection is non-circulating, this information is of little value in estimating public usage of the library. The data may also be skewed because all questions to the reference desk are tallied, even those not related to using the library or its collections (e.g. directional questions).

From April 1995 until March 1998, the reference questions were categorized by type of user as follows:

However, starting in April 1998, the categories were changed and the data were aggregated together. The new categories are:

A library staff member explained that as part of this change, "other libraries became part of other [and] government agencies were no longer a group by themselves, so the law type ones (i.e. the Attorney General's office) became part of the practice, others became part of other" (personal communication, October 1999). This redefinition caused the category "Other" to significantly increase in volume.

Because of this change in the way data were collected and organised, it is no longer possible to determine the proportion of library usage that comes from the general public; nor is it possible to directly compare the two data sets. While the category "Other" still includes the public, it is not possible to decompose the aggregate data to determine the proportion of public users. Therefore, the statistical analysis will primarily focus on the period April 1995 to March 1998.

These quantitative data were supplemented with a series of five interviews with public users of the library to elicit information about their individual search process and the types of legal information they are searching for.

Individuals waiting near the reference office and those who were identified by the reference librarians and circulation desk staff as possibly public users were approached and invited to participate in the study. Because of time constraints and the relatively small size of the population, no attempt was made to obtain a random sample. Rather, a convenience sample was used.

The researcher was present in the law library at various times in the months of October and November. Saturday afternoon was found to be the best time to recruit members of the public for the survey. Usage was very light during weekday evening hours and consisted primarily of students (law students and others) using the library simply as a place to study and/or socialize.

An attempt was made to recruit additional respondents by preparing a one-page information sheet which briefly described the nature of the project and invited individuals to contact the researcher via telephone or e-mail. This sheet was made available to library users via both the reference and information desks. Unfortunately, this approach did not generate any responses. The information sheet is reproduced in Appendix 2.

Further data on the types of legal information sought by the public were derived from an analysis of the legal sources cited in cases litigated by laypersons. The QuickLaw database Alberta Judgements was searched and all decisions between 1995 and 1999 where at least one party was self-represented were downloaded and examined. The main limitation of this source is that only about 2-5% of civil matters ever result in a final judgement so this may not be a representative sample of all self-represented litigants. An analysis of all lawsuits initiated by self-represented individuals is beyond the scope of this paper.

Data Analysis

As can be seen from Figure 1 (Appendix 3), there is a great deal of seasonal variation in the number of queries to the reference desk. Historically, the major peak in usage came in October and November when, presumably, most students were starting work on their research assignments and term papers. Beginning with the 1998-99 academic year, this trend became much less pronounced. This coincides with a general decline in the overall usage of the reference service.

Despite this overall decline, the level of public usage (as measured by queries at the reference desk) remained fairly constant between April 1995 and March 1998. This is evident from the data presented in Table 1:


Reference Desk Questions by "Other" Users



Monthly Minimum

Monthly Maximum

Monthly Average

Annual Total

Percent Other








All Groups













All Groups













All Groups













All Groups













All Groups






Table 1

Source: Weir Library Staff

Notes: Data for 1999-2000 is based on only seven months of returns (March to October, inclusive).

With the redefinition of the categories in April 1998, the proportion of Others doubled to 32% of the total volume of reference queries in 1998-99. At the same time, anecdotal evidence from library staff indicates that the total volume of public usage has actually declined over the last two years. These figures are consistent with those of another major Canadian University law library. Reference desk staff at the Dalhousie University Law Library in Halifax estimate that approximately 15% of library users come from the general public (personal communication, December 1999).

These figures are significantly higher, however, than Friedland's findings, which are based upon research done in the early 1970's. He concluded that "each year law school libraries in Canada receive about 15 percent of their inquiries, or an average of 850 questions per library, from people not connected with the law faculty" (57). This figure includes outside faculty and students as well as "very few [questions] from the public". The basis for this figure was a survey of 15 Canadian university law libraries (62, n. 27).

Where Else do People Search?

It is probable that the decline in in-person library use is related to increased usage of the Internet. The Federal government and almost all the Canadian Provinces and Territories now make their Statutes freely available online. There is an increasing volume of reported decisions available online as well. Supreme Court of Canada decisions from 1989 to the present are available via the Internet and, more recently, a few Provinces (e.g. Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario) have made their Court of Appeal decisions available through the official government websites.

A librarian at Edmonton Public Library commented that "We are increasingly using Internet sites such as ACJNet to supplement our print collection", particularly for statutory material from other Canadian provinces and the United States (personal communication, October 1999). Despite the recent advances, the primary sources available online still represent only a tiny fraction of the total material that is available in print form at a law library, however.

Despite their limited resources, public libraries receive and, presumably, satisfy a significant number of law-related reference questions each year. There have been not been any systematic studies of the frequency of legal reference questions in public libraries. Estimates vary from 3-4% (Friedland 2) to 5-10% (Dewdney 1991, 189) of the total volume of all inquiries. Staff at Edmonton Public Library gave "a very rough estimate!" of law-related queries at 5% (personal communication, October 1999). Reference staff at the Halifax Regional Public Library reported that legal queries constitute approximately 3-5% of the total (personal communication, December 1999).

Among the various focus groups conducted as part of the Department of Justice study, only one group (recently arrived, well educated Hong Kong Chinese immigrants in Toronto) specifically mentioned using the public library as a source of legal information. The library was still viewed as a less important source than consulting with friends and relatives, however (Canada 28-9).

Staff at the Law Society Library estimate that approximately 20% of in-person inquiries come from the public (personal communication, November 1999). Friedland does not provide any statistics for purposes of comparison: "County law libraries… were not surveyed" (62, n. 27). Surprisingly, only one individual among those surveyed indicated awareness of this library (interview #3); most stated that the University of Alberta Law Library was the only publicly accessible law library in Edmonton. Indeed, one individual even asked the researcher if there was another law library in the city that was open to the public (interview #5).

The interview data illustrate what institutions people contact for legal information and sources. One respondent came directly to the law library to commence her research because, as a recent University of Alberta graduate, she was already familiar with the collection. She mentioned that she would eventually be using the Legislative Library and also contacting government departments directly for further relevant information (interview #2). Another respondent noted that she would eventually be contacting the Labour Board (interview #4). Both of these individuals chose to begin their research at the University law library.

Another person indicated that she had contacted "specific law firms" for information but, paradoxically, when asked if she had sought professional legal advice, she replied that she had not (interview #1). Only one interview subject came to the university law library after unsuccessfully canvassing both the Internet and the Edmonton Public Library for relevant sources (interview #3).

Subject Areas of Legal Information Need

The only Canadian study that examines the subject matter of legal information needs reports that most questions from the public to university law libraries are concerned with separation and divorce, criminal law, taxation, landlord and tenant, and the law covering motor vehicles and accidents (Friedland 57). It is not clear if this is a rank-order list.

In contrast, at American university law libraries, the most common areas of law members of the public asked about are (in order of importance): housing, family law/formation of a business, traffic, discrimination law/patents, and criminal law (Breyer 235). Braithwaite adds that patrons are often in search “information on how to fight traffic tickets” and “the laws and regulations of taxation” but provides no information on the relative frequency or volume of public requests.

Two of the survey respondents indicated very specific areas of legal information need: quantum of damages and research for Metis settlements in Alberta (interviews #1 and 2, respectively). The others were more vague (e.g. contract law, "employment relations"); this may have been because they unwilling to reveal details of their legal problem or, more simply a lack of knowledge about the subject area.

An examination of Alberta judgements in all cases involving at least one self-represented litigant between 1995 and 1999 reveals that the most important subject area of litigation was family law (generally the variation of child support and spousal maintenance orders), accounting for 7 of the 18 decisions. In addition, there was two breach of contract actions, and one case each concerning probate, insurance, bankruptcy, and criminal law. The specific subject matter could not be determined in six actions; most of these decisions were on points of procedure.

This finding confirms the impressions of staff at the Law Society Library who noted that the bulk of the public inquiries they receive are concerned with family law matters (e.g. divorce, maintenance, and common-law relationships) (personal communication, November 1999).

Type of Legal Information Desired

The main type of legal information that is unique to law libraries is reported decisions (i.e. case law). As noted above, only a small handful of reported decisions are available on the Internet and published law reports are not usually collected by pubic libraries. Thus it is necessary to visit a law library to locate these materials.

Not surprisingly, then, all but one of the individuals who responded to the survey indicated that they were searching for cases (in addition to other sources). One respondent had no clear what type of information he was searching for (interview #3); presumably he was still in the early stages of the search process.

Of the eighteen Alberta judicial decisions between 1995 and 1999 that involved at least one self-represented litigant, legal sources were cited by the laypersons in only four matters (accounting for 26 unique citations). The Charter was referenced twice, the Canadian Bill of Rights, the Criminal Code, and the (Alberta) Legal Profession Act were each cited in only action (Horne, Rahall). One self-represented litigant cited the well-known legal text Orkin, Law of Costs (Frelick). Other than the text, all of these sources could be found in the public library and most are available on the Internet.

Only two self-represented litigants cited case law. Werner Barke used a leading Supreme Court of Canada decision on insurance law. In his unsuccessful suit against the Crown, Damon Horne cited 19 cases, the Charter, and the Criminal Code. This is a very unusual amount of legal research for a lay litigant to undertake and it clearly required at least one visit to a law library.


Despite the dramatic rise in the number of lawsuits brought by individuals acting on their own behalf, the number of people using the University law library to undertake research has simultaneously declined. This can be explained by several factors. First, the spectacular growth of the Internet in the past few years has made increasing amounts of legal primary source material directly available to the public.

Second, most cases brought by self-represented litigants in Alberta are simple factual disputes. These matters do not require either research or the citation of legal authorities. Only a very few of the parties representing themselves in Alberta courts over the past few years have undertaken legal research and much of that could have been done online. People only need to come to the university law library when they identify a need for specific legal materials that are not available either online or at the public library.

Further research in this area is required, particularly about the legal information needs of those members of society who do not have regular Internet access. Access is still very far from being universal. Statistics Canada recently reported that “connected households accounted for 35.9% of all households in 1998, compared with 29.4% the year before” (Godfrey). While that is impressive growth, almost two-thirds of Canadian households still do not have Internet access. While the Internet certainly provides an economical mechanism for the broad diffusion of government information, it is not yet able to entirely replace libraries.


Allen, Cameron. "Whom We Shall Serve: Secondary Patrons of the University Law School Library". Law Library Journal 66 (1973): 160-171.

Barke v. Calgary (City). [1998] A.J. No. 972 (Q.B.).

Braithwaite, Heather. "The Movable Feast: Serving Diverse Client Groups in an Urban Law Library". Library Administration & Management 7 (1993): 39-46.

Breyer, Hugh. "NJLLA's Legal Information Service to the Public (LISP) Survey". Legal Reference Services Quarterly 12 (1992): 233-41.

Canada. Department of Justice. Focus Groups on Public Legal Information-Needs and Barriers to Access. (1990).

Dewdney, Patricia et al. "A Comparison of Legal and Health Information Services in Public Libraries [in Ontario]". RQ 31 (1991): 185-96.

___________________. "Legal Information Services in Ontario Public Libraries".Canadian Library Journal 45 (1988): 365-371.

Friedland, M. L. Access to the Law: A Study Conducted for the Law Reform Commission of Canada. (Toronto: Carswell/Methuen, 1975).

Frelick v. Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Co. [1999] A.J. No. 677 (Q.B.).

Godfrey, Jackie To: Subject: The Daily for: 1999-07-15 (e-mail).

Healey, Paul. "In Search of the Delicate Balance: Legal and Ethical Questions in Assisting the Pro Se Patron". Law Library Journal 90 (1998): 129-47.

Middlemiss, Jim. "Who Needs a Lawyer?: The Self-represented Litigant Crisis". National (October 1999): 12-22.

R. v. Horne. [1999] A.J. No. 1172 (Q.B.).

Rahall v. McLennan. [1996] A.J. No. 894 (Q.B.).

Rice, Michael. "Reference Service Versus Unauthorized Legal Practice: Implications for the Canadian Reference Librarian". Legal Reference Services Quarterly 10 (1990): 41-57.



I would like to thank the following persons for providing ideas, information, or assistance in the preparation of this paper:

The staff of the John A. Weir Memorial Law Library, University of Alberta, Irmgrad Clow (Law Society Library), Yvonne Footz (Edmonton Public Library), Valerie Footz (formerly of the Legal Resource Center), and Jane Parkinson (Parlee McLaws) and my classmates in Advanced Research Methods.

Last Modified: November 9, 2004