a door to nowhere

Libraries Adapt to Changing Times

Change is constant, for libraries as much as any other organization.  Sometimes change comes from within and sometimes circumstances or the marketplace change.  A couple of stories on libraries this last week brought that home.  Public law libraries and public libraries share similar environments – funding, audience, ownership – but can weather change quite differently.

The first story that caught my eye was a story out of Montgomery County, Texas.  The new county judge eliminated the management role in the county law library as a cost saving.  It’s not clear what the law library manager did and this may be an example of a cost savings that fails to take into account that many courthouse law library managers are also front-line reference librarians.  My experience with Texas courthouse law librarians is that they are more than earning whatever their county pays them.  It does seem clear that the overseers didn’t see the value of this role.

Obsolete.  Dark and lonely.  A dinosaur.  These were the ways the Black Hawk County, Iowa, courthouse law library was described.  Lawyers and judges rarely used it even though the local bar association had stepped in 10 years ago to keep funding the collection.  This was the final tolling of the bell, as the collection was shopped around to new owners or prepared for the dumpster.  Unlike Montgomery County, it sounds like this was a case of slow neglect.  Black Hawk isn’t a small county, with the city of Waterloo and over 130,000 citizens.  Lawyers and decision makers appear to find the value of a courthouse law library for small firms to be less persuasive than it once was.

Then a story from Lubbock, Texas, where the courthouse library is starting a lobbying campaign to change the funding scheme.  Like many publicly accessible courthouse library systems, Texas’ is funded through filing fees.  It makes sense: the people using the courts pay for the library.  A number of other Texas counties are signing on and it will be interesting to see if this makes it into the legislature.  It illustrates the need for libraries to constantly be seeking increased funding.  Regardless of what funding bodies think about a 1% increase, it is likely that operations costs are far exceeding that.  This is especially true in law libraries.

Clearly, law libraries have struggles.  The local bar typically can’t afford to fund the law library on its own and government funding bodies are becoming increasingly reluctant to continue to put money – which has become increasingly limited – into something for which it is hard to show value.

That’s why the quotes from public library directors on their funding this week were illuminating.  Their perspectives were essentially this:  public funding for libraries has fallen behind and libraries need to do what they can with what they have.  It means making tough choices about what the library is going to do or is able to do.

It’s a wise lesson for law libraries as well.  We have staggering increases in our print collections, are one-foot-in-and-one-foot-out on electronic licenses, and have largely tapped out the funding sources available.  This is especially true where the library is serving mostly or solely legal professionals.

Governments don’t see the benefit to taxpayers, and if lawyers themselves are not heavy users of the legal information in the libraries, the value and relevance of the library is called into question.  We need to take a hard look at what we do and, moving beyond the anecdotes, determine if we’re getting the most out of the resources available to us.

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.