Text-Size -A+

May 2010

  • print
  • FAQs

This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


The Evolving Library

When is a library not the traditional book-lined library you grew up with? When its volumes are on-line and users email librarians for information from their laptops. Although legal tomes and treatises are still available on the shelves of federal circuit libraries nationwide, today’s libraries are becoming less repositories for books and more about knowledge management.

The evolving court library“Our libraries are on the cusp of change,” said Ann Fessenden, circuit librarian for the Eighth Circuit. With the federal courts since 1984, Fessenden has seen the court library begin its evolution from stacks to the Internet. Currently in the federal Judiciary there are 12 circuit libraries and approximately 100 satellite or branch libraries. According to Eric Wade, chair of the Circuit Librarians Advisory Group, libraries, which also may be open to the public and the bar, typically serve 10 or more judges, although over one-third of the libraries serve twice that number or more.

The Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management is currently conducting a study of circuit libraries to determine how a significant reduction in law book funding in FY 2012 and beyond would impact court libraries and library services. The study began with a nationwide survey of all legal researchers, according to Committee member Judge Julio Fuentes (3rd Cir.), chair of CACM’s Library Subcommittee. “We’re always looking for ways to work more effectively and cut costs,” said Fuentes. “We hope the review will educate many about the services provided by librarians and point out avenues we can pursue to realize cost savings and focus resources in times of limited budgets.” The study will show what librarians have already done to restrain costs, and how they have evolved in the face of tighter funding and changing demands. The study report will go to the CACM Committee in June.

“Law firm libraries have been shrinking for several years,” Fessenden said, “because space is expensive. Likewise, in federal courthouses, the U.S. Courts Design Guide has reduced library space.” Meanwhile, inflation in fiscal years 1999-2009 pushed the average cost of legal subscriptions up more than 70 percent, while budgets for law books increased less than 6 percent. Faced with tight funding and higher than average inflation for law books, librarians have cut millions of dollars in subscriptions out of chambers and libraries, according to Fessenden. And it’s no surprise that on-line databases are becoming popular.

“We’re moving beyond your traditional library,” said Luis Lopez, circuit librarian for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. With Fessenden, he also is a member of the Circuit Librarians Advisory Group. “In some cases, we’re becoming a virtual library. In others it’s a combination of traditional library and on-line. We’re seeing a push towards virtualization and digitalization.”

“But the truth is,” Fessenden cautions, “much of the material used in legal research is still better in print, and many judges definitely still want law books in chambers.”

Judges may want their books near to hand, but they also may have an e-reader. In Fessenden’s circuit, judges read legal briefs on a popular e-reader. Lopez also is seeing the shift. “I have some judges purchasing e-readers and asking when the library will purchase titles they can download. They’re looking to the day they can go home or away to a conference and have their library with them on the e-reader.”

As librarians, we’re well-positioned to educate court staff and judges about social media.More often, too, the requests for titles, information, and research, aren’t coming from walk-ins. “That’s certainly changed,” said Fessenden. “We used to have lots of foot traffic. But if you thought that meant libraries were used less, you’d have the wrong impression. People use the library service even if they don’t go to the library. Now we go on-line, and searches that once took weeks can get done in hours.”

Fessenden likes a bumper sticker that says, “Librarians, the Ultimate Search Engine.” “Everyone looks on-line, and their first inclination if they don’t find what they’re looking for in WestLaw or Lexis is to Google it, which doesn’t always get the best results. We help them learn what works. We know how to do a more authoritative search with the best on-line sources. When people get stuck in a search, they usually don’t have a Plan B. Librarians always have a Plan B, C, and D.”

Fessenden bemoans the research skills taught in law schools. Typically, library research is lumped in with a legal writing class. As a result, according to Fessenden, “Many law clerks are less well-prepared to do research.”

For both Lopez and Fessenden, the bottom line is providing answers and service when judges and their law clerks have questions.

“Sometimes the data is in a traditional print form that may only be in a court library and sometimes it’s on the Internet, and sometimes it doesn’t exist at all and we’ve got to find ways to pull it all together from various sources,” said Lopez. “We network by nature, and we have sources that are not on-line,”

Fessenden adds. “We know how to find reliable sources, so it’s worthwhile to call or email your librarian. We can get what you need.”

And sometimes a librarian also brings a needed perspective on technology.

Much of the material used in legal research is still better in print, and many judges definitely still want law books in chambers.“I’m not here to develop your IT systems,” says Lopez. “But I am an applications specialist. I know how our judges work, so I know what technology would be of value to them.”

That expertise extends to social media.

“Librarians keep up on the technology,” said Fessenden. “A lot of libraries have Facebook pages or they’re Tweeting. We can send out news alerts on new cases, or articles about the court in the media.” She adds that searches also can be set up for threats against judges.

“As librarians, we’re well-positioned to educate court staff and judges about social media,” said Lopez, “and also to help judges monitor, for security reasons, the information that’s out there on-line about them. We can set up alerts, set up searches so they receive a report on what’s in the media.”

What’s on the horizon for the evolving court library? Lopez sees less print, more on-line resources, although he doesn’t see that changing overnight.

“Five years from now, I see you coming into the library with an e-reader and asking for, say, any handbooks on medical devices and the law. I take my device, sync it to your reader, and now I’ve loaned you five titles. Right now, the current e-book market isn’t ready for virtual library deployment, but it’s a new market and evolving, and we’ll be watching it.”

“What we do to help people won’t change, although we may be able to do it faster and better,” says Fessenden. “Our role is still there, just the format changes.”