ARCHIVED: Future of Law Libraries in the Digital Age Scenario #4: State, Court & County - Totally Electronic Public Law Library

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(November, 2001)

Technology is viewed as one of the biggest changes in the public law library environment. Such resources as Lexis, Westlaw, and Loislaw are creating situations where legal information that is traditional in print, is also available in electronic format. The growing question that is asked by many in the public law library field is whether a library can be completely transferred into an electronic delivery system. Although librarians look at this possibility in the future tense, some government law libraries have already made the change from traditional print, to a completely electronic public law library system.

What is an Electronic Public Law Library?

The Total Electronic Public law library design is one that must be defined by those that manage the library and limited by the amount of resources, both human and monetary, afforded the public law library. In a perfect world, a public law library would have every bit of information that is available in print available electronically, and everything available electronically obtainable in print. However, since this goal is outside most, if not all, libraries, the library management must make the decision to arrange its collections in accordance with its overall goals.

If a totally electronic public law library is the goal of the law library management, the limitations of such a collection must be understood. The pros and cons of such a system should be clearly defined by the management and conveyed to those who will use the library. The pros and cons should cover such topics as (1) available collections, (2) total cost of an electronic system, (3) staffing and training, and (4) overall use of an electronic public law library.




Most publishers are pushing the Internet as the primary access point for online databases

Most CD-ROM databases are still available

Accessing online database should be accomplished through high-speed Internet connections

Modem access should be avoided

If the Internet connection is down, the library collection will not be available


Most primary sources are available through pay Subscriptions such as Westlaw and Lexis

Older sources may not be available


Treatises are becoming more available through the major online providers

Not all treatises are available and older versions of treatises may never be converted to online format

Law reviews and bar journals are becoming more readily available

lder law reviews and bar journals may never be converted to online format


Some legal resources are available either through online subscriptions or through online databases compiled by third parties such as bar associations, law schools, or state/federal courts

Most resources are not available in electronic format, or if these sources are available, the costs may be too much to justify the purchase of these materials




It is possible to increase the total collection of the law library at a cost that is similar to a traditional print collection

Online subscriptions, computer costs, high-speed Internet connections, maintenance, most likely will be higher than traditional overall costs

More information may be housed in a smaller space

Creating a smaller library (in size) may create problems of traffic flow through the law library




Staffing levels could be reduced in smaller libraries
Management could be centralized in multi-county law library systems

Shelving and updating of information will no longer be part of the librarian's duties

Staffing could increase to include technical support

Staff would have to adjust to the electronic format and provide reference service appropriate for an electronic library

Librarian will have to have some technical expertise to troubleshoot basic computer/network problems that may occur




Those proficient in using electronic databases can complete their research, and have documentation delivered back to their office via e-mail

Many users will not be comfortable using electronic databases

Users' initial complaints will be high

Librarian will have to become a de facto trainer

The pros and cons will vary depending upon the individual situation with the public law library. The managers of the public law library should make an extensive list of pros and cons and be willing to justify the decisions to all effected by the transition.


Converting a traditional public law library into a total electronic law library will cause most people to wonder about the reasoning behind such a substantial transition. Some of the primary reasoning behind such a move could be (1) overall costs, (2) available library space, (3) staffing, (4) library consolidation or consortium, and (5) centralizing library management in a multi-library setting.


There is a perception by many that moving collections to electronic would save a public law library money over a traditional print collection. Whether this is true or not depends on the situation of the public law library. For example, if the budgets for a public law library are managed centrally, converting collections of all of the member libraries to electronic may be less expensive than having the equivalent collection in print in each of the libraries. By spreading the costs over the entire consortium, it could make it possible for smaller libraries to increase the amount of their collections without increasing the total allocated budget for that library. On the other hand, the overall costs may be so much higher as to prohibit converting the collections to electronic format.

Collection and Content

Just like annual print collection costs, the annual costs of electronic collections must be calculated and the potential for increases in subscription costs should be factored in to long-range budget calculations. Contract agreements must be constantly monitored for compliance, both on the part of the library and on the part of the vendor. Since most vendors factor in percentage increases every year, the library managers should understand the vendor's practices and adjust accordingly. Many libraries find that the negotiation process never ends, especially when confronted with subscriptions that give certain percentage discounts the first year and remove those discounts during subsequent years.

Depending upon the situation, electronic libraries may still have the responsibility of purchasing certain print materials for judges or administrators. Although the overall collection in the library may be completely electronic, others in the court system may continue certain print materials, especially print statutes. If the library is required to purchase material for the Judiciary, many will demand that they receive print copies of the materials rather than electronic. The costs for these materials must be factored into the overall costs of the library. One possible benefit may be a reduction in costs of the print material if the same is purchased in electronic format.

Staffing Needs

In state and county public law libraries, there appears to be reluctance on the part of those in charge of the law library funds to hire additional personnel. This creates a situation where more responsibilities are falling on the original number of employees. In some situations, the number of employees is actually falling through attrition. One of the misconceptions of converting public law libraries from print to electronic is that fewer library staff will be needed. The conversion may actually trigger the opposite effect. Where a single librarian might be sufficient in small libraries with print collections, small electronic libraries require expertise in the same areas as traditional print libraries, plus the knowledge of electronic databases, searching capabilities, computer software/hardware/operating system, and computer networking. Although there are librarians who have all of these skills, they are extremely hard to find. This type of environment normally requires a librarian and a network technician.

Facilities and Equipment

When discussing converting a print library to electronic, some within the discussion may start planning reducing the overall size of the library to make way for additional office space for court staff. Because space is usually a premium resource in older courthouses, the pressure will be extremely high to start dividing the library into smaller pieces. Indeed, this may be the principle motivating factor in converting public law library collections to the electronic format. Library managers should calculate the total estimated space requirements to house an electronic library. They must take into consideration what materials will be permanently housed in the public law library allowing for any additional space requirements needed for future expansion of the library computer system.


The libraries that are the most likely candidates for conversion from print to electronic are multi-county/multi-district law libraries. Because they can negotiate contracts with "one voice" rather than as individual libraries, they have more leverage against the vendors, or they can take advantage of multiple subscription discounts that would not be available as individual libraries. Centralized management is the most likely style needed to strengthen the overall position of the public law libraries. The potential problem with this type of management is that some in the consortium will argue that a "one size fits all" approach will not be receptive to the needs of the local library. Management must address this type of potential problem by including people on the local level in collection development decisions.


The vision of a completely electronic public law library has already become a reality in some court and county law libraries. Although, this type of scenario may not be possible for some public law libraries so many are blending electronic collections with tradition print collections. For those contemplating conversion to totally electronic public law libraries, it is a process that cannot be entered into without defining the overall structure needed for such a transition. Issues regarding staffing, management, collection development, contract negotiations, and spacing must be addressed before implementation. With clearly set goals, proper staffing, and strong management support, the transition from traditional print to total electronic public law libraries can be a viable option for many public law libraries.

SWOT Analysis


  • Size of Collection
  • Reduced Physical Space needed to house collection
  • Ease of Searching and Indexing of information
  • Currency of information


  • Ability of user to learn/use computerized system
  • Number of available terminals v. number of concurrent users of the library
  • Specialized staffing needs


  • Expand collection
  • Minimize spacing needs


  • User reluctance
  • Vendor reluctance
  • Networking issues
  • Permanence of transition from print to electronic