Money for Law Libraries

The future of law libraries is connected to their ability to continue to find adequate funding.  This can be difficult, because law libraries outside universities and law firms tend to be funded in one of two ways:  membership subscription dues or government sources.  Alternate funding streams are desirable for courthouse law libraries but the reality is that law libraries live or die based on their primary benefactor.

Subscription / Membership Libraries

These were once more common than they are now.  There are some flagship membership libraries – Social Law Library, Jenkins, among others – left but the trend has been towards government funding.  In fact, not even the major membership libraries live on membership dues alone.

Social Law Library receives government funding, which has caused a recent back-and-forth on whether the use of that money needs to be revisited.  Jenkins and the Los Angeles County Law Library both are partly funded by court filing fees.

Jenkins is a good example of the challenge.   They’ve been highly successful at growing their membership, to 8,000.  At $150 per person, that works out to $1,200,000.  On the one hand, that sounds like a lot.  That works out to only about 20% of their budget.

The cost of maintaining print collections, which will continue despite the prevalence of primary law online, will outstrip the ability to generate money from memberships.  The only law libraries that are fully funded by membership dues (I can think of 4) belong to regulatory bodies where participation is mandatory.

Government Funding

One source of funding is local or state governments.  Typically, if a library accepts government funding, it is open to the public in some manner.  There have been trends recently towards merging public libraries and courthouse libraries in some locations to save money.

The upside of government funding is that it can be regular; the downside is that it may stay flat or be cut due to other costs incurred by the govermental unit.  Look at Vermont’s State Law Library as a recent example.  I once participated in a legislative committee hearing where county law libraries had to justify funding.  They were competing with non-governmental health functions, volunteer fire departments, and other groups that, objectively, are more fundamental to society than a law library.

A law library that doesn’t have access to government funding invariably wants it.  In the case of a library I ran in Ohio, government funding in the form of traffic fines accounted for nearly 90% of our budget.  We wouldn’t have operated without it.

There are strings attached, primarily public access.  Most courthouse-based law libraries are government funded and open to the public.   And if the funding is based on something like traffic tickets, be sure to place the library in a county where there are aggressive law enforcement and a highway.  Funding is more often based on particular court filings, with a portion of the filing fee going to the law library. The fee can be a burden for self-represented litigants who may or may not use the library, and the fee may be waived by the judge in any event.

This creates haves and have nots as well, since population or court venue popularity will impact this flow.  And once the amount is set, it can take significant political lobbying to increase it.

Grants and External Funding

This has been a tricky area.  In Canada, lawyer trust fund interest goes to provincial law foundations (in the U.S., IOLTA money tends to go to legal aid directly).  These foundations have been key to the ongoing existence of some regulatory law libraries.  British Columbia’s Courthouse Libraries receive more than half of their revenue from their provincial law foundation.  Ontario’s Law Foundation eliminated its grant to the provincial courthouse grant funding body, shifting the entire funding responsibility to the regulatory body.

One reason that grants are tricky is that few are geared towards law libraries.  While there may be funding for access to justice and other initiatives, the primary costs of a law library are materials and people.  Those tend not to meet the requirements for law-specific grant opportunities.

California’s courthouse libraries have recently scored a victory in that they are now defined as public libraries.  This, in addition to having non-profit status, can open them up to many more grant funding sources.  It will be interesting to see how this works out.  In Ohio, in the early 2000s, when the budget crunch was under way, the public libraries were vocally opposed to courthouse libraries being defined as public libraries.  There are hundreds of public libraries competing for grants and adding a handful of law libraries to the mix makes it that much harder.


Photocopying, faxing, and reference services have all been possible revenue generators in the past.  Some libraries will put on training sessions and continuing education and raise some money that way.  Others will purchase courtroom technology – large TVs, or video conferencing equipment – and rent it out to lawyers who don’t have their own.

It has to be said that law librarians are very creative about trying to find ways to generate new revenue from the services they provide.  There is a tension there, though.  If a person has bought a membership, is it right to then add on additional charges to use the services?

I’ve seen general reference free for members but a premium reference service charge extra, the first 100 photocopies free but then additional ones at a members-only rate, etc.  And if they are members of the public in a publicly-funded library, is it really appropriate to charge them for their use?

There are a number of government-funded law library systems that allow for a lawyer-specific membership class on top.  This can give extra services that allow the library staff to bypass unauthorized practice of law concerns.

At the end of the day, though, these pots of money are relatively de minimis.  Most of them require foot traffic, which is dropping for many libraries.  Online resources mean that printing and photocopying may happen less frequently; instead, the researcher can save it to a USB drive or cut and paste and e-mail it to themselves.

In fact, I’d argue that most of these things aren’t worth charging for unless it’s truly for cost recovery.  It would be better to increase membership dues or seek greater overall funding and avoid nickling-and-diming the law library’s users.

Scylla and Charybdis

For now, most courthouse law libraries appear to be stuck between the rock and the hard place of a single primary funding source and a reluctance by that source to increase its support.  We will see law libraries embrace the access to justice trends that are bubbling in the popular lawyer consciousness.  But the reality is that will only shore up current funding, if anything.  There remains a fundamental gap between the rapidly rising costs of delivering legal information and the ability and willingness to pay for it.  The organizations that have been left holding the funding bag are looking for ways to squeeze the air out of it.


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.