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Vol. 32, No.1

In defense of print: Law libraries not obsolete, bar leaders say

by Clifton Barnes

With technology reducing the use of books for research, some who hold the purse strings are looking to reduce budgets of law libraries and even questioning the usefulness of them at all.

But some bars are fighting back through education and funding alternatives.

“There’s a perception, no matter how much you try, that only lawyers use the law library, and they have lots of money, anyway,” says Christine Cendagorta, executive director of the Washoe County (Nev.) Bar Association.

“So many of our members say that it is really critical to the public and the district attorneys and public defenders for them to have access to the information,” she adds. “They recognize that the law library serves the public.”

The Washoe County Law Library, housed in the local courthouse, is primarily funded by the county commission, which had voted to drastically cut the library budget before the local bar even knew it was in the works.

Cendagorta says the bar learned of the planned cuts at the last second. “All of a sudden, our president-elect heard about it at a meeting on a Thursday, before a Tuesday county commission meeting,” she says.

Most county agencies were asked to cut spending by 5 percent this fiscal year and received no increase for the next fiscal year. “At the same time, the combined inflation for books and online services is approximately 12 percent,” says Sandy Marz, library director at the Washoe County Law Library.

After communicating with National Association of Bar Executives colleagues who had dealt with similar issues, Cendagorta sent out a survey and got 100 responses from WCBA members over the weekend. The results found that 12 percent did not have access to legal research in their workplace and that more than 55 percent used the library at least once a month, and 11 percent at least three times a week.

Furthermore, respondents indicated that a cut in library resources, hours, or staff would seriously hinder their effectiveness and ability to do their jobs. One respondent even said he would then have to make a 40-minute drive to the Supreme Court Law Library in Carson City to do research, which would greatly impact his time in the office.

Another respondent said such a reduction would be an incredible mistake. “It would have direct, substantial harm to practitioners, to laypeople needing legal information, and it would be devastating to our reputation throughout this country, and abroad as a legal community,” the lawyer wrote. “How on earth could one expect to be respected when the only law library in the state’s second-largest city is second rate?”

Others noted that an updated library is critical to pro se litigants. “Members of the public would have no ready access to legal materials. This would put them at a disadvantage in representing themselves,” one lawyer wrote. “It would also indicate that the county is not interested in helping the common citizen.”

Indeed, Marz says that more than 70 percent of the library’s patrons are nonlawyers.

The Washoe County Law Library presented the survey results and some of the written comments to the county commissioners, and while there were reductions, Cendagorta believes this just-in-time response—thanks, in part, to the speedy replies from NABE members—helped prevent some that had been planned. “The commissioners still made some significant cuts,” she notes, “but some were legitimate cuts, such as things that are widely available online or are outdated.”

It’s all online … isn’t it?

Before the bar got involved, some of the commissioners thought that everything was now available online, which is not the case, Cendagorta says. “There was some talk about putting everything online,” she adds, “but that’s just not practical to do, and it’s not practical to spend what it would take to do some of the older stuff.”

Much of the “older stuff” might not be used often, but when it’s needed, it’s needed, she says. Almost 90 percent of those who use the library say they use it for specialized books on specific practice areas or case law.

Some say that the availability of services such as Westlaw and Lexis has spurred talk of cutting law libraries. But some lawyers can’t afford such services, most of the public doesn’t have access to them, and not everything is on them.

Even if everything were available in electronic format, Cendagorta believes, the library would have to spend more resources on subscriptions, computers, and personnel to walk users through the research. “It just changes where the resources go,” she notes.

While more information is being offered by legal publishers, Marz says, it is packaged and priced to meet the needs of law firms. “We pay for online services geared toward free public use,” she says. “We have many cases and statutes online. These are complemented by books with legal information that is not online or that is hard to search online.”

Marz, who is an active leader in the American Association of Law Libraries, says the ideal library would have a combination of online resources and books chosen for its particular combination of users.

A matter of funding

The Washoe County bar helps fund its local law library through a $15-per-member dues assessment used to purchase books.

The Allegheny County (Pa.) Bar Association, after a similar funding crisis six years ago, agreed to increase filing fees to help pay for a portion of the operating expense of the Allegheny County Law Library.

The Allegheny County commissioners reduced the annual operating budget of the library by 50 percent in 2001. As a result, the bar was thrust into the situation, says David Blaner, executive director of the ACBA.

“We acted as a neutral mediator between the county law library and the elected officials,” Blaner says. “The bar association was able to reach an agreement with the county commissioners to jointly fund—$25,000 each—a study of the operations of the county law library.”

The consultants who conducted the study recommended that the operations of the law library be turned over to another entity so costs of operations would be reduced while new technology was integrated into the facility.

The Duquesne University School of Law offered to manage the daily operations of the county law library for an annual fee. The bar association played an active role in the negotiation of the agreement, Blaner notes.

Integration is one solution

The Ohio State Bar Association and local bars in Ohio have been actively involved in the issue as well. The OSBA supported a bill that formed a task force to study funding of law libraries. “The task force came up with reasonable compromises,” says Alex Lagusch, executive director of the Columbus Bar Association. “Much of the autonomy enjoyed by individual libraries has been removed, but their financial viability will be assured.”

Judge Charles A. Schneider of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas chairs the Task Force on Law Library Associations, whose members are appointed by the state Legislature, the Ohio Judicial Conference, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, and the OSBA.

The final report, released earlier this year, dramatically changes the way county law libraries operate but does not close any, and they all stay under local control.

“Tremendous cost savings are anticipated as a result of the pooling of resources among several agencies and users in the county,” Schneider wrote. “The counties will continue to provide for basic operations but will see less duplication in county offices.”

In addition, more savings are anticipated by negotiating for bulk purchases of library resources. The statewide consortium will also ensure uniformity of resources and will foster collaboration and cooperation, Schneider wrote.

The report is being reviewed by each of the groups that formed the task force and, after any input, will be drafted into legislation. After hearings, the recommendations could become law in 2009. The task force will exist until the end of 2008 to help educate and facilitate the implementation of the recommendations, including the orderly transfer from existing associations to new county boards.

While Ohio is now planning an integrated county law library system, California has had such a system since 1892. Each county has a law library that provides free access to legal information, says Carol Prosser, executive director of the Sacramento County Bar Association.

Not only are these libraries not being cut, but “they are a vital nexus to access to justice for the citizens of California,” Prosser notes.

The Sacramento County Law Library, which has evening and Saturday hours, is an approved CLE provider that offers Westlaw, Lexis, Hein Online, CEB OnLaw, and numerous other legal databases for free.

The California system is primarily funded by civil filing fees in superior courts. In 2004, Sacramento County increased filing fees from $41 to $44 to cover increased costs of running the library. The county’s general funds are not used toward the library.

Most county law libraries throughout the country are funded by a fee levied from the cases filed in courts—and that’s part of the problem.

Changes for bar libraries, too

“Because the filings have dropped all across the country and are kept artificially low for political reasons, many county libraries do not have the funding to support a public law library,” says Nuchine Nobari, library director for the New York County Lawyers Association.

Bar libraries, such as the one funded by NYCLA membership fees, are run as private clubs, but the NYCLA library is open to nonmember lawyers for a day fee.

Even the bar’s library has been the subject of budget discussions, but NYCLA leadership is committed to the cause, Nobari says, adding that using the library and its extensive resources makes for better lawyers.

“A solo practitioner can have Lexis or Westlaw for about $150 a month. To buy real books that teach them to be better lawyers, they have to fork over several hundreds of dollars,” she says. “Most take a Band-Aid approach to practicing law.”

Nobari says there was a time when it would have cost $25,000 to buy a library if you went solo, and therefore, you’d instead join a bar like the NYCLA. “Most lawyers are [now] content with case law research and consider it sufficient,” Nobari says. “It’s not the online stuff that’s killing the goose; it’s the changes in lawyering that are affecting the value of libraries and the bar associations.”

Nobari says the best economic answer for libraries is a hybrid approach, where some things move online, but others remain available in print. The NYCLA’s library’s mix is 70 percent online and 30 percent paper, but from the quality-of-materials standpoint, it’s the other way around, she says.

“I am an old-timer,” she notes. “I remember we used to have three or four books on a given subject, and the lawyers were expected to look at them all because the value was in the ‘editorial’ aspect of those books.”

Help for pro se litigants

Some state law libraries, such as the Wisconsin State Law Library, are funded as a line item within the state supreme court’s budget.

“We haven’t had any funding issues in recent years,” says Jane Colwin, Wisconsin State Law librarian. “We’ve been able to maintain pretty well. However, we don’t always get increases, so we have to manage our collection well by working better deals with publishers and converting some items—not many—to online.”

Storage of older materials that aren’t used much is a concern, but there are no plans to get rid of anything, Colwin says, adding that the library has a huge microfiche collection and a fairly large collection of CDs.

While the library is used by lawyers, its leaders have sought to help pro se litigants by working with public librarians to educate them on what resources are available and how best to assist the public on legal matters (for information on a related pilot program, see “Wisconsin tries new ways to help pro se litigants,” July-August 2007, page 4).

The Fairfax County (Va.) Public Law Library is especially concerned about the public, since most of the 50,000 individuals it serves each year are not lawyers.

“More and more of the users are pro se litigants—and they require more staff time,” says Yvonne McGhee, executive director of the Fairfax Bar Association. “Also, many of the pro ses are not as savvy with online research, and our members still like the books. So, as long as possible, we will try to sustain both, but we do see the trend toward pushing more and more online.”

More than 50 years ago, the Fairfax bar was actually formed around the law library that was in the basement of the courthouse. Through an agreement with the county clerk’s office, the FBA still manages the law library, which is located in the Fairfax County Circuit Court building.

The library is a hybrid group, with the fixtures belonging to the county and the staff reporting to the FBA. The law librarian reports directly to McGhee, and the FBA has a Law Library Committee that manages matters such as the collections.

“We are actively involved in seeking funding for our law library on a pretty much ongoing basis,” McGhee notes. In addition to county funds and Fairfax Law Foundation money, the library is funded by filing fees tacked onto circuit court and general district court filings.

Funding has at least held steady, and after years of trying, the bar recently secured an increase in funding from the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

McGhee says that costs have continued to soar while the principal revenue source—civil filing fees—has continued a long-trending decline. Since 1991, the state-based filing fee contribution has dropped nearly $60,000 per year.

Meanwhile, print publication costs have increased. “Our collection was once on par with law schools’, but over the past several years, we have had to cut our collection to the bone, both print and online, to save costs,” McGhee says. “We now mostly offer local info—Virginia, D.C., Maryland—and have eliminated many of the national reporters and law reviews.”

But with the additional funding and a new courthouse being built, in which the law library is the showcase of the facility, McGhee says things are looking up. “We anticipate the law library will have extended hours and weekend hours for members of the public,” she notes. “When we move into the building, we will most likely offer classes and clinics for members of the community, to make this a citizen resource.”

Important for lawyers, too

With all the interest in making law libraries available to the public, many say the law library remains important to lawyers as well—even if some lawyers don’t realize it.

“Many, many bar leaders whom I have talked with think that all their legal information needs are met online,” Marz notes. “Yet their use is indirect—they rely on the research of others to find information for them.

“It is a misconception by bar leaders since they are often a step removed from doing the research how valuable the information—information that can only be found in books—is to decisions made in court.”

Dan Cirucci, former communications director at the Philadelphia Bar Association, says law libraries even the playing field. “[A law library] allows medium, small firm, and sole practitioners to compete with big firms,” he says. “It gives everyone access to the information they need.”

A good law library is also important for lawyers who work part time or who work from home, adds Cirucci, who is now a lecturer in corporate communications at Penn State University. “The law library is an important gathering place as well,” he says. “Most law libraries today have meeting space and also conduct seminars and workshops.”

The law library, he believes, is as important to lawyers and some nonlawyers as a free public library is to the general public.