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Court Libraries Adapt to Deep Cuts, Changing Technology

Patricia Michalowskij, circuit librarian for U.S courts for the D.C. Circuit: “What we do hasn’t changed, but how we do it has changed quite a bit.”

Patricia Michalowskij, circuit librarian for U.S. courts for the D.C. Circuit: “What we do hasn’t changed, but how we do it has changed quite a bit.”

Court libraries and librarians in all 12 regional circuits are playing a leading role in two of the federal Judiciary’s most critical management initiatives: reducing building space and containing personnel and other costs.

Funding for library spaces, subscription and purchase budgets, and staff positions all have faced sharp cuts. The changes have been driven by new information technologies, which have reduced the need for books and enabled judges and law clerks to do more online research.

Judge William Terrell Hodges, chair of the Court Administration and Case Management Committee, praised the circuits’ chief judges for “executing hard decisions with respect to libraries and librarians.” But he also warned that “the present budgetary constraints will continue into the foreseeable future, and it is unlikely that there will be any increase in library funding.”

Despite the cuts, a 2014 survey of circuit judges affirmed that librarians remain critical to the federal courts’ justice mission. Librarians deliver a wide variety of services that courts use in a digital age—training judges, clerks and court staff to use research tools effectively; assisting in publication and communications functions; and monitoring court-related media.

“What we do hasn’t changed, but how we do it has changed quite a bit,” said Patricia K. Michalowskij, circuit librarian for U.S. courts for the District of Columbia Circuit. “You do not see the same foot traffic that you once did see in libraries, but that is not to be misunderstood. Library services are as heavily used as they ever were. I would argue more so.”

Under a new staffing formula, 254 circuit library positions were authorized nationally in FY 2015, compared with 335 positions in FY 2014. That is a 24 percent fall in just one year.

Similarly, court libraries are playing a significant role in a national Judiciary effort to cut building space 3 percent by 2018. Closures of 10 library facilities have been approved or completed in seven circuits. These include library spaces in Tacoma, Wash.; Wichita, Kans.; Mobile, Ala.; Baton Rouge, La.; Miami; Toledo, Ohio; and New York City; as well as a library annex in Tulsa, Okla.  

Major space reductions were identified in 11 circuits, including space cuts of 40 percent or more in Spokane and Las Vegas. The D.C. Circuit reduced its library from two floors to one, and the Eleventh Circuit, headquartered in Atlanta, saved $250,000 annually by closing a law library in Miami.

In the Third Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the Virgin Islands, libraries are giving up 22,000 square feet—one-third of the circuit’s entire space-reduction goal.

Pruning law book collections also has yielded savings. The Eleventh Circuit reported saving nearly $1.4 million between FY 2011 and 2015 by cutting publications. Cuts in law book purchases in FY 2014 led to $300,000 in savings in the Fifth and Tenth Circuits, and more than $200,000 in the Fourth Circuit. In the Sixth Circuit, staffing and book expenditures in the main library in Cincinnati have been reduced by half in the last four years.

“These outstanding savings reflect a firm commitment to achieve a reduction in costs,” Hodges said. “It demonstrates that the federal Judiciary takes very seriously our stewardship of public funds.”

Michalowskij said court librarians have worked to support the economizing, while also preserving essential services. “We have always been a voice for needed conservation and economy,” she said. “We want to do our part in terms of cost containment, and I think we have succeeded.”

To ensure that the libraries maintain essential services, the U.S. Courts Library Program, which brings together all 12 circuit library systems, is implementing a five-year strategic plan. It calls for repurposing reduced spaces and positions to accommodate changing technology and research processes. The library program also is using data to assess and reimagine services and collections. And in response to library closures, digital services and tools are being developed to accommodate library users who may be in another court or another state.

According to “Beyond Books – Today’s Court Library,” a document that outlines changing library functions, court librarians already have many evolving roles. They train court professionals to make effective use of databases and presentation tools; negotiate contracts with legal research services; test and in some cases develop software applications; produce news summaries; and monitor social media for threats against judges.

And in keeping with their traditional function, the librarians still help judges and law clerks with complex research. In addition to their research expertise, 29 percent of federal court librarians have law degrees.

In one instance, Michalowskij recalled, it took her 10 minutes to find a book with an answer that a law clerk spent four hours seeking fruitlessly in online databases.

“We almost suffer because there’s so much information out there. You almost get crushed by the quantity of it,” Michalowskij said. “Librarians can direct you to that specific source you need to answer your question. We save time, and in the courts, time is a precious commodity.”