April 2016 Bar Bulletin
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By Marc Lampson
Public Services Attorney

Trends in Law Libraries: The Law Wants To Be Free


Though many predicted the demise of brick-and-mortar bookstores when e-books and Amazon were launched, Amazon opened its own brick-and-
mortar bookstore at University Village in Seattle in November.

Some also predicted that libraries would vanish. Yet new libraries have been built from coast to coast in recent years, including the Community Library in Vancouver. That library was one of six that received an award in 2015 recognizing distinguished accomplishments in library architecture.1 And in downtown Seattle a new subscription library and cultural center officially opened on January 20 — Folio: the Seattle Athenaeum.2 The death of bookstores and libraries seems to have been greatly exaggerated.

But libraries are not what they used to be. Rather than a mere storage place for books, they have become dynamic, multi-use spaces where people can access information and resources in a wide variety of ways: books, e-books, magazines, e-zines, CDs, DVDs, the Internet, blogs, wikis, their phones, their tablets, their friends.

Patrons can enjoy a traditional quiet, contemplative space in a library, at a table or computer, but can also attend public readings and talks in large open spaces; or in smaller, adaptable training centers where they can learn a new language or how to become a citizen; or in conference rooms where they can meet to study, present an idea or strategize during a recess at trial. Law libraries, law librarians and their professional associations are in the thick of navigating these changes, balancing tradition with innovation.

On the one hand, in January members of the American Association of Law Libraries voted against a proposal to change the association’s name to the Association for Legal Information. Many members thought the association’s current name helped maintain a focus on libraries and librarians as central to the access of legal information.

On the other hand, innovation remains uppermost in the field and recent developments in providing free case law online, free secondary sources online, and free legal assistance in the law library demonstrate that openness to change.

Project: Free the Law

The Harvard Law School Library’s “Free the Law” project is in the process of digitizing the official print versions of 42,000 volumes of court decisions — some 40 million pages. The library has teamed up with Ravel Law, a legal research and analytics company that is funding the costs of digitization and will make all of the cases publicly and freely available to search.

The library’s motivation for this huge task was that the majority of our state and federal court decisions are not now available freely online and this “lack of access harms justice and equality and stifles innovation in legal services.”3 The partners launched this truly Herculean effort in 2015, but the digitizing has just begun. They plan to publish decisions from California, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas and the federal courts this year, and digitize and publish the rest in 2017.

Free Treatises, Too?

Treatises and other secondary sources are the still standing, tangible monuments of the legal information world. But that may be changing, too.

A few decades ago, some treatises were issued in a CD-ROM format, but those were soon replaced with online access through pay-for-view databases such as Westlaw and Lexis. Recently, some have come out as e-books. But in the aggregate, electronic access to secondary sources represents a small percentage of the sources that exist and that have been central to many legal research tasks over the past century. And little of it is free, unless you walk into a law library that can afford to house and update these sources in hard copy.

A recent article in Law Library Journal retraces this history and suggests at least one solution might be to create and publish such works, for free, on the “open web,” using blogs or wikis, such as Wikipedia as possible models.4

Free Legal Assistance in the Library

And finally a few law libraries in the United States, including the Public Law Library of King County, are now providing actual legal assistance for patrons who are or may be representing themselves in legal proceedings. This trend has been driven by at least two developments: one, changes in statutory and ethical rules that now allow lawyers to provide limited legal assistance to individuals without committing to full-scale representation of them; and two, the enormous rise of self-represented people in legal proceedings, many of whom find their way to the law library for help.

Thus was born the Rita R. Dermody Legal Help Center at the Public Law Library of King County. It provides free, limited legal assistance to the library’s patrons. It has been under development for a year and has been operating as a pilot project since January 4.

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