The Pleasures and Perils of Public Law Libraries

Here's another story from Anthony Aycock, our law librarian writer, on the challenges and rewards of law librarianship.

In times of decreased funding, law librarians have no choice but to get creative.

In 2006, I served as the director of a small public law library. It was a part-time position. That’s how small the library was.

We were public insofar as we occupied space in a public building: an old courthouse where about the only other thing that happened was Friday afternoon weddings performed by a magistrate. There had been no public funds since the county had cut us loose years before.

What little money we got came from membership dues paid by local attorneys. There were many of those — it was a large city — but with ever-rising publication costs, I knew our end would come. When a Wall Street hedge fund announced it was opening a for-profit law school in our city, I persuaded the library board to do the only thing it could do: sell the collection. As part of that sale, the law school agreed to make its library open to the public.

(That law school later went out of business, a casualty of its own cupidity, but that’s another story.)


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Law Library Funding

There are several models for a public law library.

Publicly-funded law schools — i.e., those that belong to state universities — usually have libraries that are open to the public. Some law libraries, like the Buncombe County Law Library in Asheville, NC, are part of a county library system. In California, county law libraries are funded through civil court filing fees. Many law libraries, such as The Law Library Association of St. Louis or the Jenkins Law Library in Philadelphia, have multiple revenue streams, including filing fees, donations, attorney memberships, and CLE classes. (Jenkins even charges public patrons $5.00 a day to use the library.)

There are dangers to all these funding models. Membership revenue, for example, fluctuates as solo attorneys leave the profession, and big law firms rely increasingly on databases such as Westlaw and LexisNexis. Court filing fees remain flat as library operating costs rise or, in some cases, get taken away, as nearly happened to Jenkins. And being part of a county library system is cold comfort when the library is merely an “unstaffed reference collection.”

The Quandary of Pro Se Litigants

Most people don’t contact a law library for fun. They contact it because they are getting a divorce. Fighting for child custody. Appealing a prison sentence. Avoiding eviction.

These are called pro se, or self-represented, litigants, and their numbers have been growing for years. An estimated thirty million people each year are reported to lack legal representation in state courts. As for federal courts, there was a 20 percent increase in pro se filings from 2010 to 2019. During that same decade, in 91 percent of prisoner petition filings, the plaintiffs were pro se.

Bottom line: Law libraries will never have a shortage of patrons, thanks to the self-represented. The trouble is, unlike lawyers who pay for memberships, these patrons don’t contribute any money. To illustrate their value, then, public law libraries have to get creative with the services they provide.


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Creative Solutions in Law Libraries

One way they do this is with “lawyer in the library” programs. These are clinics in which volunteer attorneys provide limited legal assistance to members of the public. King County Law Library in Seattle has always been a bellwether in this area, hosting a clinic led by the New Lawyer Division of the King County Bar Association. The Sacramento County Law Library also offers assistance to self-represented litigants through its SH@LL program.

Law librarians also seek out collaborations with county public librarians, who often get law-related questions that they aren’t sure how to handle. In a 2019 survey, thirty-two law libraries stated they partner with public libraries. These partnerships included providing legal reference support to public libraries as well as training public librarians on how to conduct legal reference. I have led such training sessions myself.

Finally, law librarians need to understand that the best way to deliver outstanding legal assistance may not involve traditional library work. We must be open, in other words, to the idea that there are many paths to success. Oregon’s Multnomah County Courthouse has a library with more computers than books. That sounds off-putting, except the library also has a team of “navigators” — court staffers whose job is to help the self-represented use those computers to wend their way through the legal system.


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“To me, that’s not a law library,” complained one librarian, which is shortsighted. For years, libraries have distinguished themselves not with their collections but with their services. In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, my library was one of the few state agencies open to the public. 

Every day, we got calls that we would normally refer to other places. Except there were no other places! We did our best to help, fielding questions about driver's licenses, tax refunds, Social Security payments. Did we know what we were talking about? Not always. The beauty, though, is that we didn’t talk a lot. We listened. We listened to people who were hurting. Who were angry. Who were scared. They needed someone to hear them without judgment. That isn’t a typical law librarian service, but those were not typical times. Someone had to help. I’m glad it was us.

Public law libraries used to be everywhere. There are far fewer of them now, and many of the ones that remain would belong on a Library Endangered Species List, if one existed. 

In spite of this, it is a great time to be a law librarian. The public needs us like never before. Figuring out how to rise to the challenge of meeting that need would be an epic achievement.

Time to get started! 



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