I am sure you have all been following the Parker County (TX) law library imbroglio as closely as I have. In fact, I was going to write a very different blog post about it today. But on Monday night, the county commissioners made the decision I would have recommended: the county courthouse law library will move to the public library.

If you haven’t been following this story closely, you can see how it started, the middle act of uncertainty, and its finale. There was even an editorial statement on the issue.

Use It or Lose It

In a nutshell:

  • the clerk of courts saw under-utilized space in the courthouse. She created a plan to use the space for passport requests.
  • the space had the words “law library” on it. Two places, apparently, so that people would know what the unstaffed room full of law books and a computer was.
  • the collection was unmaintained and unstaffed. As the clerk of the court noted, “[i]f an attorney is going in and using the current books that we have, they’re probably committing malpractice.”
  • the law library committed made up of local lawyers “were unaware the law library existed” while a county commissioner said he was “baffled that nobody knew we had a law library … that we’ve had for 20 years and nobody used it.”

The local bar (appears to be ~100 lawyers who work in and around Weatherford) reacted in the way that many local bars do when discussions about lawyer-designated space in a courthouse arises. They championed their need to keep a hold of it. They argued that lawyers would use that space, now that they knew about it.

For those who haven’t followed my blog very long, I touched on a similar context in Massachusetts a couple of years back. Courthouse law libraries face a lot of challenges. These are made more difficult when the law library is:

  • Unstaffed: You no longer have anyone to make sure the collection is managed and to promote its use.
  • Private: Lawyers do not make up the majority of courthouse users. When you limit access to a law library to the bar, you are forcing down your usage.
  • Unnoticed: Unless your law library is located in a way to encourage its use, you are likely to end up with an underutilized library by user count. I have worked in courthouse law libraries that have pretty steady use but by a pretty small group of regular users. That small user pool creates arguments that the costs borne by the larger group are benefitting very few.

The Public Library Merger

This is a positive outcome for many courthouse law libraries. When you work in courthouse law libraries, you can forget that there are many courthouses that have books or a computer in a room. Those are considered by government funders to be law libraries. And, frankly, a standalone set of books and a computer without staff is a waste of money.

For more on my thoughts on public and law library mergers and collaboration:

Texas has specific legislation about how counties can create and fund law libraries. It’s an opt-in system – no county has to have one – but once they opt-in, the legislation guides their law library.

Parker County has collected about $300,000 to fund its law library. That money appears to be going unused (it’s not clear what’s on that one computer in the unused law library space). It’s a perfect candidate to rethink how to deliver law library services using county resources.

A public-law library merger isn’t the future for every courthouse. But the public library can play a role if the local government’s focus is increasing access to legal information. If there is a strong courthouse law library, there’s no reason for it not to continue to do its work and leverage the public library as a partner.

Where there isn’t a strong courthouse law library, though, the public library is a ready-made option:

  • It’s often funded from the same government entity.
  • It’s using government space.
  • It has reference librarians and staff to help with managing the collection, including licensing databases.
  • It is often open more hours than a courthouse for public access.
  • It rarely has the same security limitations of a courthouse, so visitors don’t have to leave their cellphones outside.

Parker County’s options are wide open. It has money and it has nothing that anyone wants to keep from the old law library approach. No matter how the passport office works out, moving the law library function – and legal research and information – to the public library should really be an improvement for everyone.