Know How

The blog of the Great Library


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Airing Out the Rare Books

As a library, we often highlight the shiny new books we acquire and neglect those books that have been here for years, perhaps even over a hundred years.

Established in 1826, the Great Library has quite a collection of older books and documents. What might come as a surprise to some frequent users of the library is that there is a small room only accessible to library staff that contains our rare book collection. While the room is staff only, avid bibliophiles and researchers may request items to be retrieved from this collection for study in the library.

The Great Library does not currently collect rare books, and so the contents of this collection has not changed much over the past years. A great many of these books were donated by prominent members of the legal profession back in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Signatures or bookplates found in our rare books feature notable names such as John Beverley Robinson, Robert Baldwin, and William Riddell. While the subject matter of many of these donations may seem somewhat out-of-place in a 21st century legal practitioners’ library, the provenance, or history, of the book as an object often provides insight into the history of the legal profession and the Law Society in Ontario. For example, we have beautiful 17th century copies of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. While these types of classic texts were often used as a basis for bar examinations during the 19th century, they are not so relevant to the current law student.

We are now working on a project to clean and assess the condition of our rare books, so that we may continue to preserve them for future research. In doing this work, we have come across quite a few interesting books. Occasionally it’s not even the subject matter of the book that is most interesting, but what has been added by the owners. So far we’ve found letters from the Library of Parliament, dried flowers, beautifully illustrated maps, and tons of signatures and dedications. Stay tuned in the coming months for blog posts that highlight some of the fascinating rare books we have in our collection.


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Doors Open: 20 Great Library Facts

It’s that time of year again! As the crabapple blossoms begin to open, Osgoode Hall prepares to welcome the public to another Doors Open Toronto on May 25 & 26. This year’s theme is 20 Something to celebrate the 20 years that the Toronto community has opened its numerous doors to the public.

Osgoode Hall is one of Toronto’s top attractions, welcoming 10,521 visitors at last year’s Doors Open. We are also celebrating the 20 years that we have participated in this wonderful event.   

In honour of 20 years of Doors Open Toronto, we have complied a list of 20 interesting facts about the Great Library.

20 Quick Facts about the Great Library

  1. The library covers three floors and over 20 rooms in Osgoode Hall.
  2. The library’s three principal rooms were built during different stages of the building’s construction: the Reference Office in 1847 (as a courtroom), the Main Reading Room in 1860 and the American Room in 1894/5.
  3. The library’s collection in 1829 consisted of 264 mainly British books.
  4. The library today provides access to approximately 120,000 print volumes and thousands of databases of digital legal information from a variety of countries including Canada, UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand.
  5. Our oldest book dates from 1531 and is a book of Roman law, written in both Latin and Greek.
  6. Last month (April 2019), library staff answered 1,838 questions either in person, by e-mail, phone, or chat.
  7. The library’s Main Reading Room is a triple cube, measuring 40 feet high by 40 feet wide by 120 feet long.
  8. The Great Library got its name in the days when Osgoode Hall Law School was still located at Osgoode Hall. The name “Great Library” was given to distinguish the larger practitioners’ library from the smaller students’ library.  
  9. The floor of the Main Reading Room is covered with cork tiles, installed in 1948. These were thought to absorb sound.
  10. The American Room was the first room in Osgoode Hall be fitted for electric light, though it was converted to gas when it was discovered that the arc lighting (also used for street lighting) was so bright it blinded the patrons.
  11. The Great Library stamped all of its books with a gold-leaf Law Society crest up until 2008.
  12. The letters VR seen in the etched glass windows of the Main Reading Room refer to Queen Victoria, the monarch at the time the room was built.
  13. The most viewed post on the library’s blog, Know How, is Greatest Legal Movies. Coincidentally, the library has been used in several movie shoots, including Flash of Genius (2008) and The Time Traveller’s Wife (2009), both of which feature scenes shot in the Main Reading Room.
  14. The architects Cumberland and Storm, who are responsible for designing the central block of Osgoode Hall (including the Main Reading Room), also designed University College at the University of Toronto.
  15. The Great Library has a staff of 17. Some have worked here for over 30 years; some for just over 6 months. 
  16. There are 16 Corinthian-style columns in the Main Reading Room. They are purely decorative and are not meant to hold up the ceiling as they are made of wood and are hollow.
  17. The Great Library was named one of Toronto’s the Most Beautiful Indoor Places by BlogTO.
  18. The WWI memorial in the library’s Main Reading Room was installed in 1928. However some of the names of fallen soldiers listed on the monument were added afterwards – two as recently as 2015. One of these names was missed when the list was originally copied and the other was added because he died during the war but not in battle.
  19. One of the first shipments of books for the library was lost at sea on its way to Canada from England in 1833. 
  20. A ghost researcher has been seen twice in the Main Reading Room. In the mid-1960s George Johnston, the head librarian, saw someone get up from a desk and walk through a wall. More recently a cleaner saw a man in the library after hours. As he approached to tell the man the library was closed, the man disappeared.

If you still need more convincing to visit us this coming weekend, watch this YouTube video shot during last year’s Doors Open highlighting the stories and experiences of Osgoode Hall visitors and volunteers.

For more information, see Explore Osgoode Hall at Doors Open 2019.


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When One Door Closes, Another Opens

Being as old as it is, it is no surprise that the Great Library at Osgoode Hall harbours many secrets. As we usher in spring (if it ever comes) with our guided library tours and with the City of Toronto event Doors Open, we hope to prepare all those who venture into the Library for the many mysteries they may encounter—and to open some doors of our own.

As grand and as impressive as it is, the Great Library did not always encompass over 20 rooms on three floors. In fact, the library was first built to be contained in a single room. Over the years it became clear that this would not be enough space and so the Library expanded, slowly but surely taking over unused and unsuspecting spaces. Needless to say, most of the rooms which now make up the Library were not originally intended to be used for such a purpose. This is especially evident in the stacks room located on the first floor.

At first, it may appear unassuming—sure, the book stacks may zig-zag through some tight spaces, but nothing truly out of the ordinary. Until, that is, we reach a seemingly ordinary door located at the far end of the room which opens to…

…another door. Which opens to…

…you guessed it—another door.

Now, this last set of doors does not lead to another set of doors, but to a very cold room with a high vaulted ceiling featuring a wall lined with many rectangular compartments.

We can hazard a guess or two on the purpose this room may have served. If we revisit the fact that the room which harbours this mysterious nook was not always a part of the Library, and combine that knowledge with the other clues that the Law Society of Ontario’s curator has discovered and reviewed in her post “It was a Dark and Stormy Night”, we can guess this room may at one point have acted as the vault for a stamp office.

Currently, this room is vacant, and only used by staff when the pages from our loose-leaf materials go missing and the need for a holding cell arises.

Oh, did I say that we had reached the end of the long line of doors?

Not quite. But this is one door that this Librarian does not have the courage (or strength) to open.


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Bencher Elections, Then and Now

This week marks the start of the Law Society of Ontario’s 2019 Bencher Election, in which the province’s lawyers and paralegals will elect the directors of their governing body, as known as benchers.

Bencher elections are held every four years in accordance with the procedures set out in the Law Society Act and By-Law 3. Here’s how it works in a nutshell… All lawyer and paralegal licensees whose licences are not suspended on April 5, 2019 are eligible to vote. Lawyers vote for 40 lawyer benchers, 20 from inside Toronto and 20 from the regions outside the city. Paralegals will elect five paralegal benchers from across the province. (This year’s election is the first in which lawyer and paralegal licensees will vote simultaneously.)

All eligible licensees will have received their voting instructions by email and can vote online or by telephone. Voting opened on Monday, April 15 and closes at 5:00 pm on Friday April 30.

The winners will be announced by press release and on the Law Society’s web site once the counting and tabulation of votes has been completed. And the newly elected benchers will take office on May 23, 2019, the first sitting of Convocation after the election.

While waiting for the 2019 results, here are some historical highlights of elections past.

From oligarchy to “ambitious incompetents”

For the first 74 years of its existence, the Law Society’s governing body was appointed rather than elected. The first benchers, senior members of the bar including the Attorney General and Solicitor General of the province who were appointed under the first Law Society Act of 1797, simply selected their successors as needed from within the same close-knit legal community. Since no term of office was specified in the act, appointments were for life.  

Growing pressure to democratize the profession’s governance and eventual government intervention led to changes in the late 1800s. In 1871, the government passed An Act to Make the Members of the Law Society of Ontario Elective by the Bar Thereof. The new legislation provided that all lawyers in good standing could elect 30 benchers to serve for a fixed term of 5 years.

The prospect of expanding the governance of the profession beyond the senior bar was not universally supported. An editorial of the day predicted that this change would lead to the election of “ambitious incompetents” rather than the best qualified men[i].

The road to democracy

Full democratization of bencher elections took time. When the first election was held in 1871, certain democratic elements were still missing. There was no formal nomination process, no slate of candidates to choose from and no secret ballot. The ballot form required a signature and in the first bencher elections the voting record of every member was recorded by the Secretary of the Law Society.[ii]

A nomination process was introduced in 1912. But it was not until a major overhaul of the Law Society Act in 1970 that election procedures were significantly changed. The 1970 revision provided for the adoption of a secret ballot, increased the number of elected benchers from 30 to 40 and decreased their term of office from 5 to 4 years. Regional representation was also introduced, so the 1971 bencher election was the first in which representation was spread between 20 benchers from Toronto and 20 from other regions of the province.  

Women Benchers

In 1975, Laura Louise Legge became the first woman elected bencher. She went on to become the first woman to serve as treasurer in 1983. From 1975 she sat as the sole elected woman bencher in Convocation until 2 two more women were elected in 1983. From here, the number of elected women benchers grew slowly, very slowly. In 2015, 19 of 45 lawyer and paralegal benchers were women. 

Getting out the vote

Voter turnout is a significant metric in any election, and a perennial issue in bencher elections. Despite an increasing Law Society membership, voter participation has declined steadily over the past decades, dropping from a high of 75% in 1961 to just over 33% in the last bencher election of 2015. Past voting statistics show that light voter turnout tends to favour incumbents.

This year in an effort to encourage greater voter turnout among recent calls, several candidates have launched an initiative pledging to make a charitable donation for every vote cast by a lawyer who was called to the bar in the past 10 years.

Need more information about the current bencher election?  

Bencher Election 2019 Voters’ Guides

(includes the names, bios and platforms of the 146 bencher hopefuls are running this year)

Bencher Election 2019 FAQs

Bencher Election 2019 (Law Times)


[i] “The Benchers of the Law Society”, (Jan 1870) Canada Law Journal, 1-4.

[ii] Roy Schaeffer & Lydia Potocnik, ““To Create A More Satisfactory Mode”: A Legislative Summary of the Rules Respecting Election of Benchers of The Law Society of Upper Canada, 1797-1990” (1990) 24 Law Society Gazette 196 at 200.