California Bar Journal
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Financially strapped county law libraries 'teeter on the brink'
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The most recent threat, librarians say, came in the form of proposed legislation to shift the cost of the libraries' facilities - which have been supplied by the counties for 111 years - to the libraries themselves. Last month, law librarians drew a collective sigh of relief when the proposal was amended. Under the amended proposal - AB 2648 (Wyland, R-Del Mar) - counties would continue footing the bill for library facilities, but would be allowed to review such costs for their necessity. Some librarians still raise concerns about the bill's interpretation, but they agree that the greatest threat - which could have forced some to shut down - is off the table.

The financial future of California's county law libraries, however, remains precarious, librarians say. After a decade of trimming costs, many libraries simply don't have any more fat to cut. San Diego's law library recently cut its hours and $90,000 in annual subscriptions. Last year, Orange County's law library shut down its only branch and San Mateo's library cut $52,000 in subscriptions.

But the recent uproar over AB 2648, librarians say, pushed county law libraries into better view - and captured some much-needed attention. The State Bar, many local bar associations and judges opposed or raised concerns about hoisting an additional financial burden onto libraries that serve the public as well as the legal community.

"We did find out that we had a lot of support," said Annette Heath, Kern County's law library director and CCCLL president. "It gave us a lot of visibility that we didn't have before."

Librarians attribute their cash crunch to various factors: While counties provide library facilities, virtually all other library funding comes from civil filing fees. The state's civil filings, however, have declined over the past decade. Fee waivers, the proliferation of arbitration and the governmental takeover of some private litigation, such as child support cases, also have slowed the revenue stream.

The picture worsens if inflation is taken into account. Add the soaring price of legal publications - up nearly 60 percent - and the result, librarians say, is a 40 percent drop in their purchasing power since 1992.

Over the same decade, county law library demographics have seen a dramatic shift. Patrons are far less likely these days to have a law degree, librarians say. Biannual surveys suggest that roughly half of the library users are attorneys, and the rest are students, paralegals and a wide range of citizens looking for answers to legal questions. Last year alone, an estimated 100,000 non-lawyers used the San Diego County Public Law Library.

"The character of the law library is really changing from being a professional institution to a public institution," says Hal Aigner, director of Marin County's law library.

In fact, California's county law libraries have been public for more than a century. In 1891, state legislation permitted counties to use a portion of civil filing fees to fund public law libraries in county-supplied facilities. In 1941, the California legislature mandated the creation of law libraries in every county.

But while such libraries have long been public, it is only recently that many non-attorneys have been showing up. More than a decade ago, for example, it was unusual for someone with no legal background to visit the Kern County Law Library, its director recalls. Today, such visitors show up regularly, coming from as far as an hour's drive away.

And such patrons clearly need more help than the average attorney. They often don't know how to use the index, or they think that all laws can be found in the penal code. One patron reportedly asked a San Diego librarian: "Can you help me with the delusions of marriage?"

Some librarians estimate they spend as much as 80 percent of their time assisting non-attorneys. Some libraries have workstations with court forms. Some offer classes on pretrial proceedings and how to do legal research. Nevada County's law library, together with the local court, even installed a self-help center with an attorney and paralegal on hand.

"What you have with the better-run county law library is people going to court better prepared and, hopefully, with most of their issues covered," said Dyer, who oversees San Diego's main law library, as well as its three branches. "And the justice they get is the justice they deserve."

And law librarians are not alone in seeing a growing need for public access to legal resources. The Judicial Council, for example, recently gave grants to five courts to fund model self-help centers and to another 43 courts to develop plans for assisting self-represented litigants. The council's web site also has a self-help center - with county law libraries as a featured resource.

 "We do recognize that a significant percentage of self-represented litigants depend on law libraries as a main resource in helping them present their cases," says Dan Pone, senior attorney for the Office of Governmental Affairs in the Judicial Council's Administrative Office of the Courts.

While the Judicial Council did not take an official position on AB 2648, Pone raised concerns to the legislation's sponsors on the potential impact of requiring law libraries to pick up the tab for their facilities.

"We know that (the law libraries) provide an incredibly valuable service, not only for members of the bar, but also for an increasing percentage of individuals who are representing themselves in a variety of court proceedings," he said.

Librarians continue to encounter the misperception that county law libraries exist only for lawyers, not the public. Some suggest that that misunderstanding may have hampered their long, unsuccessful struggle for new sources of funding.

Still, AB 2648 caught many by surprise. Some predicted that they might even have to shut down if forced to pay for their own facilities.

What triggered the proposal was simply a looming state budget crisis, said James Gross, a Sacramento lawyer and lobbyist for San Diego County. In light of the statewide pinch, the county took a hard look at all expenses. What they found, Gross says, was that county supervisors had increased filing fees for its law libraries last fall and still received more than $300,000 in bills for library expenses. Shifting the facilities costs to the library seemed to make sense. However, says Gross, "we were persuaded, particularly for a lot of other law libraries, that that could be a problem."

Duane Dichiara, chief of staff for Assemblyman Mark Wyland, said the current proposal is simply an effort to ensure responsible spending. "In a time period of tight budgets, we want to make sure that every government entity is strictly accountable for every dollar they spend," he said.

The pending legislation would allow counties to review its library bills for unnecessary expenses, and would give library boards of trustees the right to appeal any denied bills. To those librarians who remain critical, Gross says he would point out the $1.2 billion hit that counties took in the recent state budget cuts. "You ought to be thankful that it isn't worse, not because we don't like you, but because it's going to be worse for a lot of other people," he said.

Karen Lutke, a San Mateo County law librarian for 29 years, is no newcomer to budget crises. But this one, she says, has reached a critical point.

"Truly, at this point, I don't know what more I could cut and still have a viable research collection," she says.

When Lutke joined the law library staff in 1972, she was one of five full-time employees. The full-time staff is now down to three.

"How much more can you cut from that?" she asks. "We have just continued to steadily downsize the collection as a means to save money. Once you get to the bone, what do you do?"