In September, I will mark my seventh year as a county law librarian. Working in a government law library has been quite a learning experience. Over the years, I have learned how to navigate the dynamics of working in such a unique environment both internally and as represented in professional associations.
The reality is that government law libraries make up a small percentage of law libraries in our profession. Most law libraries represented in the American Association of Law Libraries are either academic or private sectors. According to the 2020 AALL Membership Survey, 15% of law librarians work in the government law library setting. Government law libraries vary in size, settings, and who they serve. What has helped me tremendously throughout these years has been the network and community of other government law librarians such as the AALL Government Law Libraries Special Interest Section and neighboring county law librarians. They both provide insight and guidance in the area of government law libraries. However, as I get closer to my seven-year anniversary of becoming a county law librarian, there are three areas that I would like to see more discussion: neutrality, budgeting, and dealing with the public.
Neutrality. Be like Switzerland. The government law library needs to be a neutral space, for self-represented litigants, attorneys, judges, and government staff. Particularly, in the county law libraries where you often encounter opposing parties in a case, aspiring elected officials, and those who may have conflicting political viewpoints. In these workplaces, librarians must remain impartial and refrain from offering their opinions when assisting patrons. There may be times when opposing parties are in the law library at the same time. When this occurs, it is important to be conscious of issues that may arise if the cases are hostile. Also, during election season, we often have attorneys who are running for elected positions that frequent the library. In these instances, librarians should not express political views or show preferences. In some county and court libraries, they could become members of the library board if elected. So, it is important to maintain good relationships with elected and aspiring elected officials because they could be the decision makers for the library’s budget.
Budgeting. Budget time can be one of the most stressful times of the year, with things to consider such as funding, dealing with the library board, and rising costs of materials. When the library’s budgets are reviewed and approved by a board or any other oversight committee, you must understand how to navigate the dynamics of the board and ensure that the law library remains relevant in their eyes. In many county law libraries, elected officials, such as senior judges and the district attorney, can be members of the library’s board. As mentioned previously, this is where it is important to build and maintain good relationships with attorneys and elected officials. Through those relationships, librarians can show the law library’s relevance and value which helps when the budget is under review. While government law library budgets vary greatly in how funds are obtained and managed, forming good and productive relationships with decision makers can be helpful in making the budget process easier.
The Public. Court and county law libraries serve not only the judiciary but local attorneys and self-represented litigants. Unlike firm and academic law libraries, court and county law libraries deal more with the public. Dealing with the public can be challenging at times. Self-represented litigants often become frustrated with the legal system and will bring those frustrations into the law library. Being a neutral space, the library provides a space where patrons can find relief when they are able to find solutions to their problems. And sometimes like public libraries, patrons coming into court and county law libraries need to be connected to social services and resources. Also, for those who are unfamiliar with the legal system, the law library is their first introduction into how it works.
Although small, government law libraries are a unique and very diverse section of law libraries. And this uniqueness shows that there should be more discussions on topics relevant to government law libraries like neutrality, budgeting, and dealing with the public. So… let’s talk.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. Their essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.