Ranganathan Meets The Charter: The Law Librarian As Women's Information Advocate

Beatrice Tice

From the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of Nexus.

"[A]nd to those who would ask why the word "persons" should include females, the obvious answer is, why should it not?"

Sankey L.C.
The Persons Case, Edwards v.Canada (A.G.), [1930] A.C. 124 (P.C.).


If you're one of those "persons" who regards the Persons Case as an important legal victory in the struggle of Canadian women for equality, you're in good company. Since even before the days of the Famous Five, Canadian women activists have engaged in litigation as a means to further the ongoing effort to achieve legal equality. Despite the fact that lawsuits are prolonged, costly, and potentially risky, litigation remains a favored strategy among equality activists seeking egalitarian change. Women's advocacy groups, most notably the Women's Legal Action and Education Fund (Women's LEAF), have raised a strong and public voice for women's rights through strategic intervention in constitutional equality litigation. As feminist activist and lawyer Sheila McIntyre notes,"…the focus of my own engagement with law is not whether, in theory, to use 'law' in general or rights litigation in particular, as an instrument of social change, but how to do so accountably….."1

As a lawyer and former litigator myself, I am inclined to approach this notion of how to engage in equality litigation not only with an eye to accountability, but also with a much more utilitarian question in mind: How do you engage in equality litigation in order to win?

Fortunately, the law librarian in me has a ready answer: To be compelling, your arguments must be based on insightful analysis of relevant jurisprudence and other information, which are identified and located through careful and thorough investigation. In other words, dear reader, research is the fundamental first step toward successful women's rights advocacy! Effective legal research is the key!

While this may seem a pat conclusion, especially coming from a law librarian, "effective legal research" is often easier said than done. As everyone figures out very quickly during their first year of law school (or their first summer job!), the process of legal research can be difficult, time-consuming and, when not performed skillfully, ultimately unproductive. Non-profit women's advocacy groups, which are faced with ongoing resource challenges, may be affected by this in a number of ways. To begin with, the legal bibliography itself can be anything but user-friendly. Especially to a younger researcher, such as the law student volunteers upon which women's advocacy groups often rely, the complex organization of legal materials can be confusing and the choice among print and electronic resources bewildering. Women's advocacy groups may not be able to afford access to the gold-standard fee-based electronic resources, yet freely available legal resources are not always current, comprehensive or well-organized.

Researching equality issues also often requires investigation of materials that are not part of the standard legal bibliography, such as government reports and empirical information. These can be difficult to locate, even for professionals. Also, rights arguments arising under international commitments are increasingly being made in domestic courts. Researching these issues opens the door to the crazy world of international legal research, which truly does require special expertise that may not be readily available to women's advocacy researchers. And none of this information - legal, extra-legal or international - is comprehensively organized with a focus on the task at hand, namely advocating women's rights.

In a world where time is money and efficiency is everything, non-profit women's advocacy groups are thus potentially placed at a competitive disadvantage in the legal information-gathering marketplace.

According to basic principles of information science - yes, information science! - such a situation should not arise. After all, when reduced to its most basic form, law is simply information. Ranganathan, the Indian father of librarianship (you've never heard of Ranganathan?!), would therefore tell us that legal information is subject to his Five Laws of Library Science: 2 (1) Books are for use; (2) Every reader his/her book; (3) Every book, its reader; (4) Save the time of the reader; and (5) A library is a growing organism. In other words, like any other type of information, legal information must be organized,indexed and made universally available in such a way that it can be accessed efficiently by an end user in order to supply an information need. The organization and availability (or lack thereof) of information should not serve as a barrier to access.

All of which is a fancy way of saying that law librarians have their own special role to play in furthering women's advocacy. As professionals who are privileged to know both about Ranganathan's Laws AND Section 15 of the Charter, law librarians have the ability, through our hybrid skills and knowledge, to collect and offer ready access to comprehensive legal and extra-legal sources specifically focused on women's equality issues. We can organize these materials in such a way that makes sense to advocacy researchers, not to mention students, scholars, and others with an interest in women's rights. Our information, made freely available, can serve as a springboard for research projects and provide an organizational template for developing effective research strategies that reach beyond the scope of the information we provide. Law librarians who support the ongoing struggle for women's equality have the unique ability - and, Ranganathan might argue, perhaps even the professional duty - to serve in this way. I call it engaging in "women's information advocacy."

I'm proud to say that the Bora Laskin Law Library has been involved in women's information advocacy for over ten years, through the Women's Human Rights Resources Programme. WHRR began in 1995 as an online annotated bibliography, initiated by Faculty of Law Professor Rebecca Cook and former Chief Librarian Ann Rae. Over the next decade, funded only by the occasional outside research grant and in-kind support from the Law Library, the online project has grown to a searchable database of over 1,300 fully annotated women's rights law resources. Available at www.law-lib.utoronto.ca/diana, the database offers a research "triage" for women's rights law information on Canadian and international topics, where reliable resources are located, evaluated, organized and annotated, all in a freely accessible, low-graphics format.

But in addition to offering comprehensive women's rights information, we also believe that WHRR has the potential to make an even greater contribution to women's information advocacy. Our dream is for WHRR to become actively involved in the education of the next generation of lawyers who will take up the equality challenge. We've already taken some steps in that direction. After encouraging law students to research women's rights issues in their written classwork this year, next academic year WHRR will host a symposium for students to share their work and connect with others interested in women and the law. We dream of continuing this as an annual event that will include students from all Ontario law schools. We also dream of hosting a student-run online discussion group through the WHRR website, to engage students and faculty in women's rights debates.

For women's advocacy, we dream of doing more than providing organized resources that may alleviate some of the research challenges discussed above. Through active outreach, we hope to build cooperative relationships with women's advocacy groups and other organizations focused on women's equality issues. We dream of identifying ways to structure information resources that directly connect with current and future litigation and other projects. By working together, we seek to support these groups not only by providing assistance with that fundamental first step of effective legal research, but also with the entire process of furthering women's rights, perhaps in ways we haven't even dreamed of yet.

Of course, like everything else, dreams cost money, and the realization of our dreams will be dependent on the availability of outside funding. But the real point here is to demonstrate some of the many opportunities through which law librarians, by engaging in information advocacy, can make a unique and significant contribution to the ongoing struggle for women's equality.

To paraphrase Lord Sankey, to those who would ask why the phrase "women's advocate" should include law librarians, the obvious question is, why should it not?

It should. Believe me, it should!


1 S. McIntyre, "Feminist Movement in Law: Beyond Privileged and Privileging Theory", in R. Jhappan, ed. Women's Legal Strategies in Canada (2002) at 44.
2 S.R. Ranganathan (Madras: 1931). Ranganathan (1892-1972) was an innovative librarian, philosopher, educator and mathematician. His chief technical contributions to library science were in the areas of classification and indexing theory, including the revolutionary Colon Classification System (1933). The Five Laws of Library Science, first published in 1931, has been accepted as the definitive statement of library service. Librarians today continue to recognize the Five Laws and their underlying concepts as powerful inspirations for creating libraries and services that are responsive to the needs of their users.