Checklist for Law Library & Public Library Merger

The Halifax County courthouse library has been in a slow merger with the local public library.  I’ve been watching the progression, from concept, to a meeting of library leaders, to a “go”, to last steps.  There are many reasons why merging a courthouse-based law library and the local public library makes sense.  Halifax County’s progression highlights a lot of the issues, because it’s not just a matter of shifting books or even people.

Why Move?

There’s your threshold question.  If your audience is primarily the judges, then you probably shouldn’t.  They work in the courthouse and would access the library like a law firm’s lawyers would their own, internal library.  However, if you are trying to support the practicing bar and improve access to justice for self-represented litigants, putting the law library outside the courthouse makes sense.  Because:

  • There is a trend towards increased courthouse security.  This can inhibit easy access to a courthouse by those wanting to use the library.  Lawyers may be able to bypass security but the public can’t and will have their bags and possessions subject to search.
  • Older courthouses may not be in easy to access locations.  If your user population does not live adjacent to the courthouse, it may be inconvenient.  Public libraries, on the other hand, tend to be built for high use, both in choosing locations and having amenities like free parking.
  • There is an overlap of skill sets between law librarians and public librarians.  Even taking into account that there is a difference in legal research, (a) lawyers are or should be as good at it as law librarians and (b) neither law librarians nor public librarians should be giving self-represented researchers legal advice.
  • Courthouses tend to be Monday through Friday, 9 to 5 locations.  Public libraries often exceed those hours because their users want to visit libraries in the evenings and on weekends.  Even lawyers may find a law library open after 5pm more convenient than one in the courthouse.
  • Lawyers who do not practice in the courthouse, or self-represented litigants who do not have a court filing or hearing, aren’t any more likely to be at the courthouse than anywhere else.  They can do legal research using online paid and free services from anywhere.  Self-represented litigants can fill out forms and prepare paperwork without the courthouse.

Halifax County’s bar association was cutting its paid subscription to a legal publisher database.  It’s former president said the library was unusable in its current location, and apparently the print collection wasn’t being maintained properly.  All good reasons to reconsider whether this was the best location.

Governance

Virginia county courthouse law libraries are governed by state statute.  This is common in the U.S..  In this case, Halifax County’s court clerk is responsible for the library, which was initiated by the local bar.  A shift to the public library, allowed by law, means that the public library’s board of trustees now has a role.

Who makes decisions?

Most decisions can be pushed down to public library staff.  They will already be collecting some legal materials, although they are more likely books or databases for self-represented litigants.  But the court clerk collects up to $4 per filing to fund the law library and someone has to manage those funds.

Does the bar association and court clerk continue to make legal information decisions?  Or does the public library director make purchases and then invoice that fund?  It seems an easy issue to solve, except that the legislation allows the court to gather the money and it’s a different entity from the public library.  In some counties, the county government funds both the law library and the public library directly, and so might be able to handle this sort of accounting issue more easily.

Ideally the libraries would have a merged representation.  In Halifax County, the suggestion was made to have a bar association representative on the local library board.  But there were concerns that such a role might be considered limited to law library concerns.  Some law libraries are stand-alone non-profits with their own boards of directors; others are overseen by local lawyers or judges.  It’s important to clarify who continues an oversight role, particularly when the primary funding source is public money.

Operations

This is perhaps the easiest.  There may be an initial disagreement on what to move.  Many law libraries have old collections that may not fit into a more modern collection development plan.  If the courthouse law library is full of older reporters, most or all of which are available in an electronic subscription, there’s no need to shift them.

I wonder if that’s what happened in Halifax County, where the director found that “the numbers of books they’ll be taking from the law library is much less than what they anticipated”.  Even the initial number of shelves wasn’t terribly large, and would only have shifted about 210 linear feet.

A bigger challenge is the disconnect between legal information and public library information.  In many places, like Virginia, law libraries funded by the courts are meant to be open to the public.  But legal publishers may charge more for access to their online databases (LexisNexis and Westlaw) or limit which parts are available if the public have access to them.

If a public library takes on a courthouse law library collection, to keep it relevant to the legal professionals, it will be important to crack this nut.  I’m not aware of a legal publisher refusing to license primary law databases with public access.  However, there may be a tension between what the local lawyers want and what can be provided in the public library.  One might suggest that the lawyers license their own content in their firms – or at least the difference – and consider it overhead.

The only significant content challenge for public libraries will be the looseleaf.  Since it tends to be the most expensive print content and requires regular maintenance, it may not fit into the normal workflows of a public library.  It may make more sense to be more aggressive in eliminating these books in public libraries than law libraries have been themselves.  Public libraries have been collecting single volume legal texts for decades.  Inheriting a collection from a courthouse law library may actually deepen, rather than merely broaden, the available resources for the public.

The shift in Halifax County seems obvious on the face of it and it’s positive that the local bar association is engaged in the change.  This sort of shift – from courthouse to public library – probably makes sense in many more jurisdictions.  The upshot might be better legal information access at a reduced cost for local governments.

 

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