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
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
"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
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
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
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?"