Some Sobering Questions About County Law Libraries- Part 1

October 2, 2012

As the financial plight of county law libraries throughout the country continues to worsen, some vital questions immediately come to mind: 1) Do we still need county libraries in their present form? 2) If so, can we adequately fund them? 3) If we still need these kinds of libraries, but can’t afford the cost of maintaining them in their present form, what form should they take on?

While this blog cannot pretend to address all the issues in sufficient depth, my goal is to pose some provocative questions that will stimulate dialog and hopefully lead to some workable answers. Part 1 of the blog will serve as an introduction, with subsequent parts discussing funding and form in more depth.

A good starting point for discussion is the question of why county law libraries exist in the first place. The quick and easy answer is because they were created by statute in several jurisdictions beginning in the late 19th century. Essentially these types of libraries shared 4 traits: 1) they made their services and resources available to the bench, the bar, government  officials, and the public, 2)for the most part, they were funded by a portion of the civil filing fees that were collected by the county where they were located, 3)they were governed by a Board of Trustees, consisting of a pre-set number of judicial and/or county appointees, and 4) state legislation that created them often imposed upon the county where the library was located, an unfunded mandate to provide facilities and maintenance for these libraries.

Times and conditions have changed since the founding of county law libraries more than a century ago. The Internet and online revolutions have placed up to the minute information at attorneys’ fingertips, reducing the need for print resources and brick and mortar structures, except in cases of rare and historic materials. Attorney usage has declined, while the self- represented population has grown. Facilities that were once “state of the art” 30 and 40 years ago have deteriorated. Parking for libraries located in some urban centers and court houses range from insufficient to impossible. Populations have shifted further away from traditional branch locations.

Yet, arguably the greatest threat is the uncertainty of their primary funding. The Florida legislature took away civil filing fees from their county libraries in 2004 as part of the revision to court funding. While California libraries have been able to retain these fees, they have been subjected to both a moratorium on increases and a decline in revenue – despite increases in operational costs. These cuts have resulted in furloughs and staff and materials reductions in several libraries across the country. Given this scenario, it is hard not to question the state of county law libraries in their present form – and more importantly how theses libraries can be adequately funded under present conditions. Stay tuned for more in my next installment.