Law Library Funding isn’t Black and White

As the Francophones say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more change you carry, the more likely you’ll become a meme. No, what it really means is that as long as law libraries are not self-sufficient or a clear role in the administration of justice, they will be caught in an endless loop of justifying their existence to their funders.

I touched on funding recently – I’m not aware of any self-sufficient law library – and the news about Jenkins Law Library in Philadelphia is a case in point. The local bar association is considering a resolution – to voice its support for the court retaining more of the court filing fees – that would have a huge impact on the law library’s revenue.

The library’s position is here. The Philadelphia Bar Association’s position is here, hosted by Jenkins (PDF). The library’s numbers break down like this:

  • subscribers (members) account for 20% of the annual revenue;
  • court filing fees account for 70% of annual revenue;
  • they have a multi-million dollar endowment. I don’t know what it is but I would expect most of the independent law libraries that opened in the 1800s would have endowments, and Jenkins is using investment income.
Part of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s resolution recommending that court filing fees be retained by the court, rather than disbursed to the Jenkins Law Library

You can see more detail in the law library’s Form 990 non-profit filings – the numbers are millions of dollars, and include investment income. And there, I think, is the rub. Contributions in 2016 were 68.7% and were nearly $3.5 million, and I’m guessing a chunk or all of that are the court filing fees. Even without the court filing fees, Jenkins operating revenue is substantially higher than many North American courthouse law library budgets.

Jenkins is a typical subscription law library. Many have no public access, serving only members (and many allow only lawyers to be members). Jenkins has public access for self-represented litigants who want to buy a daily membership. This was similar to how Ohio operated until the underlying legislation changed and the court fees had both greater government oversight and a public access mandate. Subscription or membership became a premium option.

In many states, like Texas and California, the public access mandate is much older. That hasn’t eliminated funding challenges for them, where, for example in California, the court filing fees have been frozen in the past. It doesn’t provide full protection but there’s a closer tie between what the law library does and where the funding comes from.

And the bar association is a typical bar association. In these days of access to justice, the bar is throwing its support behind state legislation that would authorize the state court to keep more of the filing fees. For better or worse, Philadelphia is the only first class, and thus impacted, county.

It reminds me of the balancing that the Inner Temple had to do with its law library. And the balancing the state did in Ohio when all of the local governments were struggling with funding shortages, and law library services were in the balance with emergency services and health care.

While Jenkins has been nimble – hosting the Drexel University Law School library when construction delayed the university’s own law library opening, as well as an innovative (although extinct) 20 minute LexisNexis offer – it can be hard to justify against competing justice initiatives. Particularly when the library’s innovative services, like a state trial court collection initiative, may be seen as a nice-to-have for lawyers who may have access to comparable research elsewhere. British Columbia’s public-facing courthouse library system had to make similar choices in 2014.

At the same time, any cut in their operation revenue is likely to have an impact on what they can afford to provide. So that may have a knock on impact on their ability to retain their 6500 members and those subscription dollars. At some point, even an endowment will give out. Library governance boards typically avoid spending endowment principal but a significant funding cut means either spending the endowment to maintain service levels, or dramatically rethinking how to provide legal information. The latter is the only long term solution because the endowment will eventually give out.

This is another chapter in the adaptation of courthouse law libraries, particularly for the subscription law libraries. Increasingly, I think the lack of having a public access mandate will be a death knell for funding for law libraries that are not self-sufficient.  But Jenkins is an unusual law library and may be able to forestall the change this time.

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.

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