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Courthouse Library 'data hounds' hunt down research for lawyers

By Paul Russell, Contributor

The Courthouse Library, run by the Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA), ensures equal access to justice by providing a wealth of resources to those lawyers with clients who don’t have the means to pay for extensive research, says TLA executive director Joan Rataic-Lang.

“Lawyers may not have the time, and more importantly, clients may not have the money to pay for lawyers to do the preparation they need to competently argue a case,” says Rataic-Lang.

“This is where libraries fill a hole. We are able to ensure that lawyers are not spending their time doing what we are best at, which is directed research,” she tells

As the largest of 47 courthouse libraries across the province funded by the Law Society of Ontario, the Courthouse Library at 361 University Ave. offers a wide range of traditional books and legal journals, as well as access to databases, says Rataic-Lang.

“Lawyers, especially in small- to medium-sized practices that don’t have extensive libraries, come here to do their background work,” she says.

“They often ask if we can help them answer a certain question or find a resource or commentary, and they are so pleased when we do that for them. So, it’s a cool role we play,” says Rataic-Lang.

As a collection point for TLA members, she says the library fosters mentoring between lawyers, with younger practitioners able to approach more seasoned colleagues for advice.

“There is a real sense of community here that fosters a supportive network that allows for a kind of informal mentoring as people get to know one another,” says Rataic-Lang.

By helping find the background material they need, she says library staff allows lawyers to focus on other aspects of their work.

“The world is changing really quickly, and access to information and access to justice is evolving. That is where we can be of great assistance,” says Rataic-Lang.

The role of the library has not gone unnoticed, she says, citing a quote from “information guru” Seth Godin.

“The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work in a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa, and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user,” Godin says in his blog post on the future of the library.

“That’s really the role we play. We’re an intermediary for people who don’t have the time to figure it out themselves or understand it, and I think that’s a pretty significant role,” says Rataic-Lang.

Her librarians keep abreast of legislative changes affecting the legal community, she says, which ensures they can help lawyers adjust to new legislation and rules.

“The level of research we do — we never give an opinion or anything like that — is pretty sophisticated and in-depth, and is really appreciated by our users who don’t have three hours to look for a case,” says Rataic-Lang.

On a personal level, she says working at the Courthouse Library and ensuring that everyone has equal access to legal resources, and therefore justice, is the perfect culmination of a career spent in libraries.

“When I was young, I worked in a public library in a disadvantaged part of Hamilton, where every day I could see the social good that we played in that community,” says Rataic-Lang.

“Now that I’m here, I realize there is a whole other side to the practice of law, made up of people who really need us, and they are so appreciative of how we can help them, and that means so much to me,” she says.

When she came to the TLA library — after working as a library director at several Bay Street firms — she realized that many lawyers don’t have the kind of knowledge infrastructure to draw on that big law firms enjoy.

“We try to fill that role for those smaller firms, and for the clients they represent,” she says, adding there is real satisfaction in knowing the library is helping those without the resources to do it themselves.

“This is the role I wanted to play went I went to school 35 years ago, though it has taken me a while to get here,” Rataic-Lang says.

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