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.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.
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.
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.