The More Things Change…Public Law Libraries in the Digital Age

March 4, 2014

Law school blog 5It’s no secret that public libraries generally have been hard hit by government budget cuts, diminishing use of traditional library services, and the replacement of print materials with digital.  Public law libraries contend with the same challenges as their non-law counterparts, and also grapple with the increasing loss of attorney users to online legal resources.  Nonetheless, the mission of these state, court, and county libraries remains vital: to serve the legal needs of the general public and the legal community.  Accordingly, public law libraries across the country are continuously evolving the form of traditional library services, e.g., reference, collection development, and instructional programming, to serve their critical function well into the digital age.

Collection Development

Collection development is at the core of what libraries do. Traditionally, collection development has involved identifying, acquiring, and maintaining print, audiovisual and electronic resource materials for attorney and non-attorney users.  Many public law libraries already provide access to materials in electronic formats, including Lexis, Westlaw, and other Internet-based resources.  As electronic information sources supplement and/or replace print sources, libraries acquire digital content and ensure long-term public access to digital content through license conditions.  However, over time licensing issues have dramatically affected public law libraries’ ability to exercise primary responsibility for and control over content.  For example, resource materials like journals are often purchased as a group, making individual customization financially onerous. Accordingly, public law libraries may look to the next form of collection development: the cultivation of open access resources (those that are digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions).

Cataloging and Access

Cataloging or organizing and providing access to information is another core library function.   Law library collections are comprised of a plethora of legal resource materials in various formats.  Cataloging makes these resources more accessible to attorney and non-attorney users by readily informing library users of the library collection’s contents.  Traditional library cataloging centered on bibliographic utilities such as OCLC and Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN). As legal resource materials become increasingly digitized and diverse, these traditional platforms for describing, organizing, and providing access to information become less useful. As a result, libraries are developing various metadata schemas. Metadata, in the context of web searching, describes the data in webpages, making the web easier to index and search.  Recently, the Law Library of Congress, which houses approximately 75,000 volumes of printed Congressional Hearings, partnered with Google, Inc., to digitize its entire collection making it freely accessible to the public.

User Services

Libraries have traditionally extended reference support or instructional programming to library users.  Public law libraries may assist non-attorney users by providing access to its collection and the library’s online resources, or offering a class to attorney users on performing free legal research.  With many people choosing to litigate their disputes “pro se” (without legal counsel), the demand for these services continues to rise.  These “pro se” users also increase the demand for the delivery of these services virtually.  Virtual reference support began with simpler remote exchanges that did not allow for “real-time” responses such as e-mail.  Today, public law libraries can avail themselves of various social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and video programming on YouTube to remotely assist users.  In addition, many public libraries are providing real-time assistance with electronic resources through “chat” functions and offering instructional programming via screencast.

While the form of traditional library services may be changing, the need for those services is not.  Public law libraries must continue to evolve to remain relevant and carry out their essential function in the midst of a rapidly, transforming information and technological landscape.