ARCHIVED: Future of Law Libraries in the Digital Age Scenario #9: State, Court & County - Truly Public Law Library

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(November, 2001)


Functioning as a branch of the public library system, a department within the judicial branch, or an independent public law library, these libraries share the mission of providing public access to a wide range of legal materials and court documents, both print and electronic. As each state's judiciary invests more of their budget in the development of services and court assistance programs for the public, the public law library has become a significant partner in the delivery of justice. Relying on regional repository libraries to maintain archival print collections, the librarians at these libraries are familiar with the best resources for meeting the needs of the self-represented litigants, members of the general public and the judiciary.

As documented in a number of surveys conducted in early 2000, the number of attorneys using public law libraries is decreasing. With a corresponding increase in the depth and breadth of materials available in an electronic format at an affordable price, the attorney now accesses most, if not all, legal resources online. Those public law libraries relying on a membership subscription base must find new ways to provide alternative and/or remote services to retain this user population. At the same time, the number of lay users is increasing, including a dramatic rise in the number of self-represented litigants. Interestingly, this growing group of law library users requires more assistance and training than that previously provided to attorneys using public law libraries and affects the format and content of public law library collections.


Located in the courthouse or municipal library facility, these public law libraries offer large open spaces permitting easy access to computer workstations and library staff. Using a variety of formats and techniques, law librarians provide ongoing educational programming for library users, including the judiciary and the public. The librarians' time may be dedicated to completing in-depth legal research for solo practitioners who, despite ease of access, don't have time to come to the library or complete the research at their own desktop. For the self-represented litigant, the librarian is ready to assist as they navigate a range of library materials, both print and electronic.



  • Blend of electronic and print legal resources requires less shelf space and more electronic workstations
  • "Hot line" to regional repository law libraries for access to many print and archival materials is centrally located in the library
  • Computer workstations dedicated to preparation and filing of court documents


  • Wide range of access to online electronic resources
  • Limited print collections consists of primary law for the locality and legal materials prepared for the layperson
  • Court forms, including necessary instructions
  • Emphasis on "how-to" titles written for the layperson
  • Basic materials available in multiple languages and large print formats
  • Fewer staff for technical services functions because there are fewer materials to process
  • Majority of staff working in public service and training
  • Strong oral and written communication skills necessary for teaching
  • Strong customer service orientation
  • Basic conversational skills in other languages


  • Ongoing basic legal research training sessions for self-represented litigants, such as monthly in-house seminars on a variety of legal topics
  • Ongoing instruction in use of electronic products, including self-serve kiosks
  • Interlibrary loan services for access to print materials housed at regional repositories
  • Providing coordinated "virtual" legal reference services with public and state libraries
  • Partnering with courthouse legal assistance programs


  • Professional development addressing licensing issues inherent in the acquisition of electronic access vs. ownership
  • Workshops focusing on teaching and training adult learners


  • As a partner with the court and community in providing equal access to the legal system, these libraries are funded via state and local appropriation

SWOT Analysis


  • Public law libraries are already positioned to serve the public's information needs
  • Better, more efficient use of limited library space to provide legal information
  • Loss of some print collections = less-timely access to older legal information
  • Dependence on other libraries to maintain and preserve legal materials
  • Increased reliance on providing information via electronic access requires more expertise re: licensing issues


  • Partnerships with local judiciary and bar increase awareness and support of the library's mission
  • Collaborative approach to providing legal assistance is more beneficial for the public
  • Establishing cooperative collection access with other law libraries strengthens relationships with colleagues


  • Perception that the law library requires much less funding since there are fewer books to process and fewer attorneys using the library collection
  • Inability to negotiate online access contracts for public access and/or inconsistent vendor policies re: public access to online databases
  • In some states, unauthorized practice of law rules and policies may restrict the levels of service librarians are able to offer