Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Adios to Texas State Law Library? Legal collections statewide feeling budget pinch

The Texas State Law Library would have its funding eliminated entirely under both the House and Senate proposed budgets and its 13 employees all would be let go, at a savings of about $1.1 million per year. Our pal Carl Reynolds from the Office of Court Administration told me he's particularly worried about this suggested cut; at my request, he sent along this summary of the State Law Library's role:
The State Law Library provides a combination of materials and services not easily obtained elsewhere. While legal materials can be found in other institutions, such as university law libraries, county law libraries and larger public libraries, these libraries often limit access to their services to specific client groups, or they lack the staff expertise to truly help untrained clients use the materials effectively.  Our mission is to serve the legal research needs of public citizens statewide, state agencies and the courts, and to all levels of researchers including prison inmates, small businesses, consumers, pro se litigants and the legal staff of the courts and all state agencies. No other public library offers access to the range of legal materials or the level of staff assistance provided by the State Law Library.

In addition to current legal resources, the State Law Library maintains a collection of historical materials that are often invaluable in legal research but are not maintained by entities other than the largest university law libraries, and in some cases not even by them. We provide access to a broader range of materials than public or county law libraries and we often receive requests for help from these institutions. (Only 59 of the 254 counties maintain any type of  legal collection. Not all of these are open to the public or provide any guidance on using the collection.)

The library supports the courts and prison inmates by providing a fee based copy service for the case files maintained by the Court of Criminal Appeals, Supreme Court and 3rd Court of Appeals. This relieves the courts of this task and provides access to the files to inmates, their families and their attorneys who are working on appeals.

Many state agencies, including the Attorney General, receive hundreds of questions from the general public related to their legal rights but they do not have staff or resources to handle these questions.  These calls are referred to the State Law Library. We are able to locate information or provide contact information to legal services, which relieves the agencies of a backlog of questions and provides quicker response time to the public.
My first-ever job that did not involve manual labor was to spend a summer during high-school in the well-stocked library at my father's firm, inserting supplements in the back of law books and reading everything I could lay my hands on that looked remotely interesting. So my personal sentiment on the subject of law libraries runs to the nostalgic, and I recognize that the world is changing in ways that may ultimately make them obsolete (at least outside of jails and prisons, which don't have Westlaw or Lexis accounts). Most attorneys don't really need to "hit the books" anymore to research legal history.

That said, I still think law libraries have a role, even if it's an evolving one. The State Law Library's service to "prison inmates, small businesses, consumers, [and] pro se litigants" represents IMO the future of what law libraries will look like, servicing more non-attorney clients and focusing materials acquisitions more broadly than just case law research. To remain relevant, law libraries must learn to "truly help untrained clients" because their services aren't as important anymore for workaday attorneys. The proportion of pro se litigants is rising, however, and greater numbers of people are muddling through their own wills, divorces, business startups, etc. without attorneys' assistance. Serving that audience - perhaps using new, yet to discovered/created methods and formats - will be how modern law libraries remain relevant, if in fact they do at all.

Indeed, it's not just the State Law Library under the gun. Relatedly, the San Antonio Express-News had a story yesterday on budget shortfalls at the Bexar County Law Library that surely mirror difficulties faced by local law libraries statewide. In Bexar:
“In our main library I've eliminated the complete tax library, the labor library, half the bankruptcy library, and periodicals and law reviews. That's saving us about $60,000 a year,” [administrator Jimmy] Allison said. “We're beginning to eliminate a lot of things that are specialty items that lawyers use,” he added.
As evidenced in this quote, books of caselaw aren't the only things law libraries bring to the table, and online research tools can't replace everything they do. But it strikes me as counter-intuitive that law libraries (outside of correctional settings) would focus on dead-tree version of caselaw books and eliminate ancillary materials on specialty subjects. Why replicate in books what can be accessed more efficiently online?

I'm curious about Grits readers' views on these topics: Are law libraries still useful and/or relevant? Should they keep updated caselaw books or rely more on electronic subscription services? And to what extent should their focus shift to services for non-attorney clients? Twenty years from now, will law libraries even exist? And more immediately, will the State Law Library still exist come September 1, 2011? Let me know what you think on these subjects.

UPDATE: A commenter lets us know that "the Texas Library Association has been publicizing the closure of the State Law Library, and they've also prepared an e-mail template that you can use to e-mail your local reps on their site. MORE: See coverage from the Library Journal.

14 comments:

Prison Doc said...

It always surprises me when laypeople tell me, "Prisoners shouldn't even have access to medical care...they're prisoners."

A question I've always had as a non-lawyer is, "Why do prisoners need a law library?" Do prisoners who represent themselves, with or without a "jailhouse lawyer" for assistance actually do any good, or do they just generate paperwork that clogs up the judicial system?

I would expect Federal judges, most of them, to value prisoner access to a law library. If that is indeed the case, it would seem that access to online services would be superior to maintaining a books-and-paper library.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Of course, Prison Doc, Ruiz v. Estelle was (at least at the beginning) the work of a TDCJ writ writer, David Ruiz, and no litigation ever had greater effect on TDCJ than that.

By the same token, there are many judges (and even more prosecutors) who do think writ writers "just generate paperwork that clogs up the judicial system." Arguably both perspectives have merit.

Bottom line, as a constitutional matter prisoners retain access to the courts even if they can't afford a lawyer, so as a practical matter that right has to be facilitated somehow.

Texas Maverick said...

Electronic databases are a more efficient way of maintaining up to date material for this type of subject matter. However, access is the question. NOT everyone has internet access and often libraries are the only way to access such material even if electronic. Funding for the TEXSHARE databases is being eliminated for K-12 and to libraries and the subscription fees increased. Limited access to the people who need it most. Where does it end? If the material normally held by the State Law Library can be accessed freely at large universities and freely accessed online, then yes make them electronic. But don't charge the libraries a fee to access the database. If you do then you are right back to limiting access.

Don Dickson said...

I hope and fear at the same time that book-based law libraries are becoming extinct.

Hope, because they are increasingly impractical. You can spend enormous sums of money just on the space that is required to store the same information that can be stored on a collection of compact disks, and the amount of space that you need continues to grow. And after you spend all that money on space, you have to fill it up with the books, which are themselves fabulously, breathtakingly expensive.

Fear, because the CDs and the online resources are in most particulars no less expensive than the books, and because they require the user to possess specialized skills that aren't required to pull a book off a shelf and read it. Thus the great majority of people are effectively denied access either because they don't have computers, or don't have computer skills, or can't pay princely sums to Lexis/Nexis or Thomson/West/Reuters.

If there is any good news in all of this, it is that there are more courts and more legislatures putting more information online than ever before, usually at minimal or no cost to the end-user. And there are folks like the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School who are developing really marvelous legal research portals.

For this lawyer, the three best reasons not to be self-employed are self-employment taxes, health insurance, and Westlaw. :-)

I'm not a frequent user of the State Law Library, but it's right down the street from my office and I will miss it terribly when it's gone. It's a valuable resource for me and for many other lawyers here in my "neighborhood."

Don Dickson said...

On this subject I have to share a funny story with you. I attended law school back when we still had to carry pails of water from the well. My school had two Lexis terminals in the library, and you had to sign up to reserve them in 15-minute blocks of time. I had become pretty good at book research so I had never bothered to learn the first thing about Lexis.

I was competing in a moot court competition that was based on a then-pending case before the US Supreme Court styled Chadha v. INS, a case concerning the constitutionality of the "one-house veto." When my partner and I realized that the case was up on cert and was still pending, we resolved to go to Washington to obtain copies of the briefs.

So one morning in December of 1983 we boarded a People Express flight at LaGuardia and off we went to the SCOTUS building, where my partner and I plunked about $100 worth of dimes into one of the copy machines in the Clerk's office.

Upon our return to New York, sore from patting each other on our backs for getting over on our competitors, we quickly discovered that everyone else had gotten the briefs off Lexis. ((groan))

Anonymous said...

If you close the law libraries, you might as well close the courthouse door to those irritating little people who can't afford Lexis, Westlaw et al. Or maybe that's the plan? I'm a lawyer and occasionally use the State Law Library but I'm always impressed by what a good facility it is, and by the patience and thoughtfulness of their librarians in helping pro se litigants see the wood for the trees, without falling into the trap of giving legal advice. Is anyone doing a petition or soliciting letters of support for these threatened libraries?

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Texas Library Association has been publicizing the closure of the State Law Library, and they've also prepared an e-mail template that you can use to e-mail your local reps on their site. http://www.txla.org/texline-265

Don Dickson said...

I concur with what 3:46 says about the SLL staff. They've always been very helpful to me when I've asked for it.

Anonymous said...

Prison Doc if left up to you we would just drop them on on an island somewhere with nothing. They need the law library because the prison officials are corrupt. They need this to hang on to some of the human rights. The greivance system does not work it is broken and only rules for the house. Some have to file taxes and other documents for their families also. The problem is if they close the law library then the prison officials have one less thing to take away from them and abuse them. When the people in prison were bared from taking the barbarians to court for violating human rights the abuses and tortured got worst.

Anonymous said...

Why do we NEED a law library. My Belief is that Texas is only here to throw them in jail, we don;t want them to actually be able to fight charges or prove innocence, Do we?

Just look at those exonerations by DNA lately. Take away the access to the library and 'them thar' criminals will have to stay where we want them to be!

Anonymous said...

Prison Doc might like to bear in mind that some major cases started out in the prison law library - the best example probably being Gideon v. Wainwright, the case that declared the right to representation by counsel in felony case. Mr. Gideon's petition was all his own work, written in No. 2 pencil on a Florida Department of Corrections form. It did the trick, got his case reversed, and he was acquitted at his retrial. Sure, there are many, many hopeless suits filed - I prefer "hopeless" to "frivolous" - very few people are having any fun at all if they're filing pro se lawsuits. But impeding people from properly researching their claims before they file is not going to fix that problem.

Priscilla Streightoff JD, MLIS Law Librarian said...

There is no more comprehensive collection of Texas judicial history. This fact alone should give ‎pause to those who would shutter the doors to the Texas State Law Library.‎

What has not been noticed to this point, is that the Texas governmental libraries have been ‎diligent stewards of the public dollar as they developed their collections to complement one ‎another, with little overlap. The State Law Library provides the most extensive repository of ‎published judicial interpretation of Texas law. It also has many treatises and practice guides ‎written with the Texas practitioner in mind. The Legislative Reference Library has the most ‎extensive repository of Texas legislative source documents, and public policy documents. It does ‎not duplicate the materials of the State Law Library, and vice versa. Additionally, the state ‎agency libraries (and state attorneys) rely on the State Law Library and the Legislative Reference ‎Library for legal materials. This cooperative arrangement permits those libraries to focus on the ‎subject and policy areas that are part of their specific missions. The state governmental libraries ‎have spent wisely in fulfilling their missions.‎

While some comments speak about the brick and mortar institution, I would like to highlight that ‎the Texas State Law Library provides extensive online resources to the public, including the ‎workaday attorneys, not all of whom have in-house Westlaw and LexisNexis access. Even a ‎workaday attorney with access to Wexis may not have an online account to Heinonline.org. If ‎you are an attorney and have not experienced the depth and breadth of online primary and ‎secondary law sources offered on Heinonline.org, I would encourage you to run on over to the ‎State Law Library and try it for yourself. You will find online access to the complete run of the ‎Code of Federal regulations, the complete run of the Federal Register, all editions of the ‎U.S.Code and other early digests of federal law, all editions of the U.S. Statutes at Large, an ‎extensive library of compiled federal legislative histories, the U.S. Reports, law reviews from the ‎starting issue of each publication, the presidential documents, many historical legal treatises, the ‎English Reports. Add to this all of the session laws of the states back to the beginning of each. ‎All of these publications are online, scanned from the originals, and searchable. Heinonline.org is ‎a fabulous online research product, and it is freely available to you – the new or the experienced ‎researcher – by way of your State Law Library. ‎

I rely on the SLL to provide me access to the historical Texas Administrative Codes (which are ‎not available online anywhere), and the historical Texas Registers (many years of which are not ‎available online). I also rely on them for superseded volumes of Vernon’s and the superseded ‎pocket parts – again only partially available online. I rely on their collection of treatises and ‎practice guides, which in general, are far from free online. I am not aware of another institution ‎that has a more extensive collection of these types of Texas materials and that can provide them ‎on premises or through pdf or fax on demand, quickly. and at an affordable rate.‎

In my opinion, there is no substitute for the State Law Library. It provides necessary services ‎efficiently and at a reasonable cost. I believe the citizens of Texas are well served by this ‎institution.‎

Tim Lewis said...

Why is it always the Libraries that Take it on the Chin? Because too many people have an outmoded concept of what libraries do. Many decision-makers also suffer from a disconnect to libraries because they don't use them. Hence in their self-centered world no one else does either. As a librarian, I am tired of being told, "Its all online anyway," as if I am an idiot and the Internet has passed me by. Neither is the case. I recognize and embrace the changes that have occurred in research in the past 30 years. However, I also recognize and embrace the value of information professionals, A.K.A. Librarians, who should be valued and made use of and not tossed out because they are a convenient target. Close the Texas State Law Library and other libraries at your peril! You will regret it later.

Christopher said...

The Austin Community College Paralegal Association has put a petition online to stop the closure of the Texas State Law Library.http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/texasstatelawlib/