Stained Glass Window from the Cincinnati (Hamilton County, OH) Courthouse Law Library

Cut Your Library Nose Off to Fight for Space

File this one under different perspective.  There is a tension in courthouse libraries.  Keep in mind that, in most cases, whether the courthouse law library is funded by the local or regional government or by membership dues, the library is almost always run by the local bar and/or bench in North America.  This means that you have competing interests over what the library is supposed to be and what it is supposed to do.  On the one hand, you have the information delivery side.  On the other, you have the local bar’s use of the space for its organizational purposes unrelated to information delivery.  The case of the Worcester Bar Association and its Massachusetts Trial Court law library are a good example of why those two functions need to be aligned.


Here’s the short version.  Massachusetts has been making decisions to close low traffic courthouses and consolidate its resources, both people and materials.  I don’t know why they are doing it.  I know why I would do it:  you don’t need courthouse law libraries to deliver information to lawyers.  If you can afford it, it is great to keep the law library space as a hub for information delivery.  But if your funding is primarily for information delivery, it is a costly way to deliver a service that can be handled centrally.

That’s not even to advocate a digital-only library.  Law libraries provide inter library loans of books and we scan and e-mail chapters (fair use / fair dealing on copyright) directly to lawyers.  The most effective delivery of legal information right now is directly to the person needing it.  Space is becoming nice to have, not a fundamental need.  Every extra library space you manage requires staffing, whether the staff are behind a reference desk or just stopping in to make sure the print collection is current and accounted for.

Shifting to library that delivers information to the researcher directly can be more efficient than a courthouse law library.  Courthouse security deters the public and others from using the law library.  Operating hours limit access.  Law practices that have moved from the town square out to the suburbs are too far away for convenient access.  As I’ve written before, courthouse library collections could shift to public libraries as they have done in some cities in Michigan.

How did the local bar avoid major changes?  It kept its print collection and lost its librarian.

That’s considered a victory?

I’m completely on board with the necessity for as many access points as possible.  If you can afford it.  In many cases, though, the people running the law library aren’t the ones actually paying for it.  Why?  Because most courthouse law libraries get their space for free; they couldn’t operate if they had to pay rent as well.  Membership dues aren’t enough to pay for collection, staff, and facilities costs.  Neither are court fees.  Especially if you only charge the people who are using the service.

When you can’t afford to run a staffed library, leaving a collection behind is practically worthless.  You’d be surprised how often print books are stolen from law libraries.  Print books lose pages at the photocopier.  They get out of date and age while their pocket parts and updates are waiting to be filed.  Normally the answer would be staff but that’s already been cut.  Here’s the dirty secret:  someone is going to manage that collection.  It may be a bored lawyer (or their teenaged offspring), an overworked judge’s assistant, or the Trial Courts may realize fewer savings by having to send someone out.  If you leave a print collection somewhere, you’re committing staff time and budget as well.

It also begs the question:  if an unstaffed library is just as good as a staffed one, why does the Massachusetts Trial Court need to keep any staffed libraries?  They can replicate some courthouse libraries in the US, and just dump a print collection in a small room near the judges’ chambers (I’m thinking Kenton County, KY, as an example; I’m sure they’re not alone).

Unfortunately, the reality is more prosaic.  There can be a tendency in courthouse law libraries in many parts of North America to focus on “the importance of maintaining our local law library in its current condition” to the detriment of planning for its future.  Emphasis on current (which is actually more like the way it’s always been).  In other words, let’s keep the space inviolate and ignore fiscal efficiencies that can be realized by delivering legal information in other ways.

Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.


David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.