When a Law Library Isn’t Necessary

Law libraries face the same unbundling challenge that lawyers do.  While we’re perceived as being containers of books and services, and somehow a unified organism, there are things that we do that can be hived off.  This is clearest to see when you look at jurisdictions that are attempting to meet access to justice needs with tools for self-represented litigants.  In these situations, a law library may not be the answer.

I was interested to read the latest developments about the Massachusetts Trial Courts libraries [paywall].  They are government funded, centrally managed law libraries across the state.  In recent years, they have had closures and other adaptations.  It sounds like the merger of the Fitchburg courthouse law library with the public library hasn’t led to much activity, and the Trial courts closed 2 other libraries at the end of the year.

[On Fitchburg]

However, usage continued to decline, and when it reached one or two visitors per day or less, the Trial Court decided to reduce staffing and shorten hours….  The law library’s non-circulating collection remains accessible, and the Trial Court and the public library “continue to explore other ways of maintaining services”

One of the concerns the local bar raised was that the Trial Courts had a preference for Court Resource Centers over law libraries.  It’s not hard to see why, as the list of services that the centers offer would definitely overlap with those of any competent courthouse law library.  Another was that a new library would have a much smaller physical footprint, in part because the resource center was getting some of the space.  One reason was usage statistics, which showed that 85% preferred to use the resource center.

But the courts confirmed that their commitment was stable.  The 15 law libraries have 34 staff and a budget of $5 million.  They served 37,575 patrons in 2016.  In contrast, the now-6 resource centers (I couldn’t find budget for them) have served 54,000 since the first one opened in 2014.  It would be interesting to know the split on public and local lawyers in the law library data.

The resource centers aren’t unusual.  I was surprised, when I looked, at the number of court or public information booths, and self-rep centers that seem to be around US courts.  Some jurisdictions still rely entirely on a Web site; I’d be curious to know how they measure their success, in contrast to a physical location that might be able to capture more information from intake to matter completion.

Another story discussed the partnership in Houston, TX, where the Harris County Law Library provides space to enable volunteer lawyers to provide legal services.  Their clinic serves self-represented clients who do not qualify for legal aid.  In contrast to the Massachusetts approach, the law library seems to have absorbed some of the roles that have been split off in court resource centers.  A number of Texas law libraries have self-represented centers that seem to offer a similar variety of services to the Massachusetts centers.

One of the earliest locations that I recall embracing this type of split was Maricopa, AZ, which started with kiosks for self-represented litigants.  They now offer an online form service for court forms, as opposed to the legal forms most states also offer online.  It appears to be common, in public-facing law libraries in jurisdictions with those forms, for the courthouse law library to support those completing the forms.

I’ve written before about the value law libarians offer – and could potentially offer more if they move away from the rudimentary aspects of supporting legal research.  In some jurisdictions, the unbundling of these lower value services is happening as they are shifted outside the law library.  Others appear to be able to incorporate the services without necessarily having librarians provide them.

There are things law libraries do because we do them, not because we’re the only ones who can or even the best situated ones.  As we analyze and adapt our role for the future, it’s worth digging into which things we can excel at, and grow those, and which things we should partner on, and have someone else do the work where we can’t create as much value.

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.