I find the creation of new law libraries an unusual and curious occasion. Legal information delivery does not change rapidly. We may see more information but the delivery tools increment slowly over time. When someone decides to create (or recreate) an actual law library, it’s an opportunity to see what their vision of the future is. In at least two US counties, it’s very much an old-fashioned approach to legal research.
The Way Things Were
This new law library in Plumas County (CA) is literally old school. It’s apparently less a new law library – it was created in 1905 – than entirely newly renovated. It embraces legal information delivery as it looked when the county was first founded.
I’m curious about whether the law library has always been at that location. Plumas County appears to have a declining population (2000: 20,824; 2017: 18,990) and so perhaps there is not a huge public demand. The local bar numbers 37, with 11 of those lawyers being admitted to the bar since 2000.
California is one of the US jurisdictions that has legislation governing law library funding and governance. This secures the ability for each county to support some sort of legal information delivery. The decision-making is local.
The local law library board is attuned. The old print collection was weeded and only leather-bound books were kept. You can’t argue with the aesthetics of this library:
But the salute to modern times is quickly forgotten as one is transported to a different time more than a century ago. Yes, there’s electric lighting and two computers, but visitors immediately focus on the surroundings reminiscent of the past. Quarter-sawn oak desks and chairs gleaned from here and there, a collection of appropriate old photographs and paintings and other furnishings went into the re-creation of an old time law office.
Like many law libraries, it is unstaffed. This puts the public at a disadvantage. The electronic licenses may be a draw but availability doesn’t mean access. The law library is also only accessible after getting the museum director, under whose oversight the library’s space operates, to unlock the library. A part of me likes this small town approach.
But it’s really legal information designed for Lawyer Daggett. California is a particularly legal information rich jurisdiction. There is, in fact, a lot of information online, including self-help through LawHelpCA. If you are not going to have staff to help you, there’s no need to visit a law library.
I wondered if where the nearest staffed courthouse law libraries were. Unfortunately, the California courts web site link to a map of courthouse law libraries is broken.
I would absolutely stop into this law library. But I’m not sure that it furthers access to legal information for the county’s residents.
The other county that announced a new law library was McLennan County (TX). It is also not so much a new law library as a response to the old library space being annexed for a court room. This is an unsurprising use of courthouse space and, frankly, a better one than having a law library in a courthouse.
It will be interesting to look back at 2020 as a marker in time. Judges have traditionally wanted space. Lots of it, for benches and tables and jury boxes and so on. The virtualization of the courtroom in response to the pandemic should diminish some of this space demand. Courtrooms can be shared. We’ll see.
Waco has had a law library and it was, once, a staffed location. But the collection was weeded in 2011 and the position cut at the same time. As the recent news article says, “[t]he new library features enhanced digital and print resources for attorneys and members of the public.” Book security will be managed using RFID tags and a surveillance camera.
Texas is one of those jurisdictions in the US that not only has a lot of online information but legal publishers have created state-specific content. This creates collection management challenges – there’s a lot more that one could license or purchase – and one might expect there to be a preference for expertise. A law library governance board can make collection decisions but, by their own expertise, their ability to evaluate will be limited.
In case it sounds like I’m just whining, I apologize. I actually think that having a law library is a good thing if the alternative is to have nothing. But I still don’t think we have reached a point where we are focused on legal information delivery over physical access.
The renovation in Plumas county cost money. Those desks didn’t make themselves. Ambience isn’t free. And even if you have no staff, those computers require maintenance and replacement. McLennan County is licensing both Westlaw and LexisNexis. There is money flowing into the courts and out again without any rethinking of legal information delivery.
The tradition or culture of devolving funding and decision-making to a local level inhibits the ability to deliver legal information in the 2000s. I’m not sure whether it’s the funding approaches (county courthouses, local membership associations, what have you) that causes this: local money needs to stay locally.
The local focus pinches off the ability to centralize elements of legal information delivery across a wider area. In particular, I think geographic centralization (state, multi-state, multi-county) could create new opportunities for delivery. As with virtual court, we can staff areas without putting staff physically in those places. But staffing to support legal information delivery requires money.
For now, at least, that money continues to flow towards space and ambience at the expense of access.